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Top Ten Movies of 2022

With having come and gone, naturally we have to look back at the year that was when it came to the movies we watched.  Movie theaters in general saw improved business, but it still lagged behind pre-pandemic levels.  What is definitely surprising is that Hollywood toward the end of the year just seemed to abandon the fall season.  There were very few tentpoles released in the Fall, and awards fare didn’t seem to fill that gap like they had in years past.  If not for Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) and Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), this would’ve been the worst Fall season since the start of the pandemic.  But, thankfully, the year 2022 did start off strong, with better than expected box office for Winter releases like Uncharted (2022) and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022), as well as a strong reboot for DC’s The Batman (2022).  But what really stunned people this year, and provided a good sign for the future of theatrical releases, were the strong word of mouth performances of many different sleeper hits throughout the year.  In the Spring, the A24 surrealist action flick Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022) became the biggest all time grosser for the beloved indie lable and a must see in a quiet box office field.  Then in the summer, we saw the complete domination of Top Gun: Maverick (2022), a movie that makes Paramount Pictures seem very wise now for keeping it on the shelf for 2 years until movie theaters were back to normal business.  A sleeper hit even found it’s way into the very depressed Fall season, with the horror film Smile (2022) managing to stay atop the box office in a way that few horror movies do.  Overall, despite the studio’s hesitancy to recommit, there is plenty of evidence that the theatrical market is alive and well, but is in desperate need of more product.  But, to get a good perspective on the year of 2022, it’s time to take a look at the highs and lows of the year in cinema by listing my top 10 best and 5 worst movies of the year.

This last year, I managed to break the 100 films in a theater mark, a new personal best for me.  It was a lot of movies to go out to the cinemas for, and it doesn’t even include the ones I saw on streaming as well, which are also eligible for this list.  It was hard dwindling down my lists to the 10 you’ll see below.  Keep in mind, my list is only the films that I saw within the calendar year of 2022; anything new that I saw in the last week doesn’t count, but they could be eligible for next year’s list.  Before I delve into my top 10 favorite movies of 2022, let me list off a few that almost made my list and that I would recommend seeing: Armageddon Time, The Batman, Benedicton, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Bullet Train, Emily the Criminal, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, The Inspection, The Menu, The Northman, Thirteen Lives, Triangle of Sadness, Top Gun: Maverick, and Turning Red, Violent Night and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Now that we’ve narrowed things down, let’s take a look at my choices for the Top Ten Movies of 2022.

10.

EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE 

Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

It certainly seemed like a year to explore concepts of a multiverse on the big screen.  Marvel was taking their stab at it with their sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), but in that film the most they explored within the multiverse was maybe three or four dimensions.  Another film, made on a fraction of the budget of Doctor Strange, on the other hand took the multiverse adventure concept and ran with it.  Coming from the same duo of oddball directors behind the film Swiss Army Man (2016), Everything, Everywhere, All at Once was absolutely a movie that lived up to it’s title.  It’s remarkable watching this movie and seeing how much the Daniels were able to milk this multiverse concept with an A24 budget and still make it feel huge and epic in the process.  It’s a movie where every kind of movie comes into play as well, with cinematic inspirations as varied as the movies of Wong Kar-Wai and Ratatouille (2007). The only reason I don’t have it higher is because at times the movie feels a little too much and nearly buckles from the relentless motion of it’s universe jumping.  But, what manages to hold this movie together are the performances from it’s cast.  In particular, this is movie has a career best turn from Michelle Yeoh, one of the greatest actresses of her generation who is now finally getting her due recognition because of this film.  She is also perfectly complimented in her role by a breakout return to film for Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Temple of Doom as he was most well known for before this movie).  Stephanie Hsu, James Hong, and Jamie Lee Curtis also deliver exceptional work, especially in witnessing them play so many different versions of the same people across the multiverse.  Honestly, Marvel should take note from how this movie managed to make the multiverse work on screen as they build towards their Secret Wars endgame.  There really was no other film like this all year, and it’s great to see a film fit so much interdimensional mayhem into what is ultimately an intimate family drama at the end of the day.  Everything, Everywhere, All at Once manages to find the cosmic within the struggles of one family in a single day and it’s a spectacular ride along the way.

9.

NOPE

Directed by Jordan Peele

Top Gun: Maverick may have dominated the summer at the box office, and certainly it deserved all the success that it got.  But for me, this was the highlight of the Summer 2022 season for me.  Jordan Peele, in his third directorial effort, changed things up a bit and instead of digging into his horror bag of tricks like he used for the movies Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), this time he decided to test his skills at science fiction.  And the results are his most skillfully directed film yet.  Here, Peele goes more monster movie, and it felt like a nice return to the paranoia monster flicks of the 70’s and 80’s, like Jaws (1975) or The Blob (1988).  Of course there is always a subtext when it comes to Peele’s movies, and in this case it’s about the pursuit of fame that often puts people at risk to themselves and others.  There is a wonderful metaphor woven into the story, with the film cutting back to the past where a chimpanzee rampaged on the set of sitcom in the early 90’s.  In it, we see the folly of trying to control the un-controllable, and it contrasts perfectly with an extreme case involving this UFO terrorizing the characters in this film.  The UFO itself is one of the most original and terrifying movie monsters in recent memory, especially when it’s lurking silently in the shadows.  It also is a perfect examination of the fringes of the Hollywood dream machine; focusing on people chasing that elusive glory.  A disillusioned movie horse trainer, his out spoken hustler of a sister, a failed sitcom star still looking for that big showstopper, a grizzled cameraman seeking that one perfect shot, and a Fry’s Electronics security expert who’s just a little too nosey.  Peele manages to make all these characters shine as they try to survive the unknown terror in the skies.  This is also a big leap forward for Peele as a director, as Nope  really shows him going for grand spectacle for the first time.  It helps that he’s working here with Christopher Nolan’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, because this movie looked spectacular on an IMAX screen.  Whatever Jordan Peele’s got next for us, my hope is that he continues to challenge himself with more variety of stories like this one, because it turns out he’s got the skills to tackle all kinds of different genres with his own unique style.

8.

THE WHALE

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Everything you have heard about Brendan Fraser’s Oscar-worthy comeback role is true.  Fraser’s performance really goes beyond just the physical transformation from all the prosthetic applications to have him appear as a 600 pound man.  He creates a character that genuinely feels authentic and personable; giving depth and empathy to the character that doesn’t feel like awards bait at all.  His character, named Charlie, is a fascinating mix of contradictions; intelligent but also clueless about what’s best for himself, opinionated but also a bit of a sap, and also willing to see the best in people even while he is slowly destroying himself.  Fraser captures all of this with a great amount of subtlety, and quite literally disappears into the role.  The film may be polarizing to many; with some seeing the film as exploitive and depressing, and I totally understand that feeling.  This is not an easy movie to watch, as the movie doesn’t shy away from the more grotesque realities of Charlie’s state of life.  But, this has always been part of director’s Darren Aronofsky’s style.  Almost every movie he has made has put his audience at unease at some point.  From his debut with Pi (1998) to Requiem for a Dream (2000), to more recent movies like mother! (2016), he has pushed the boundaries of what audiences will accept before they are repulsed.  Even more conventional movies of his, like Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014) had elements that shocked and bewildered audiences.  The Whale continues that tradition, but Aronofsky balances it with a tender sense of humanity involved, something he also excelled with in The Wrestler (2008).  Everyone will no doubt praise Brendan Fraser’s performance, as they should, but opinions on the movie will likely fall between the love and hate variety, and I found myself in the former.  This is perfect marriage of a great performance finding the right director and it resulted in a fascinating character study of a subject that cinema is often too afraid to depict on screen.

7.

RRR

Directed by S. S. Rajamouli

There’s a phrase where sometimes for something to garner the right amount of attention, it has to be so good that it can’t be ignored.  For a long time the second biggest film industry in world was the one coming from the country of India, which over time earned it the nickname Bollywood.  Indian films were certainly successful in their part of the world, but too often they’ve been looked down on as a niche market here in America.  That was until this year when Bollywood hitmaker S.S. Rajamouli released his most ambitious film yet: RRR, which is short for Rise, Roar, Revolt.  RRR without a doubt is the most insane, grandiose, and earnest action film to have come across American cinemas in some time, and Hollywood would ignore it to it’s own peril.  The movie really does have everything; elaborate action sequences with insanely staged stunts, moments of high tension, romance, bromance, lions, tigers, bears, and a couple of spectacular song and dance routines to round it out.  It’s so much movie, thrown into a blender and tossed back out seeing what’s sticks with the audience.  And yet, even at 3 hours in length, there is not one frame of this movie that is wasted.  The movie definitely benefits from the infectious chemistry between it’s two main characters, Raju and Bheem (played by Ram Charan and NTR Jr. respectively), who pull off some of the most insane action moments you will ever see, including one moment where Bheem uses a motorcycle as a club to knock out British soldiers.  The movie remarkably is based on the lives of two real life freedom fighters from the Indian liberation movement, but the movie is not at all concerned with historical accuracy.  It’s like a Bollywood Braveheart (1995), except this one is aware of how historically inaccurate it is and doesn’t care.  In the end, it’s all about making a movie that is just fun to watch from beginning to end, taking no chances with subtlety, and just going with whatever feels awesome, no matter how ridiculous it may be.  Perhaps it’s time for Hollywood to look harder towards what they are brewing in Indian cinemas right now.  RRR is that breakout movie that has to be seen to be believed, and thankfully it’s a movie that earns every laugh, tear, and cheer along the way.

6.

BARDO: FALSE CHRONICLES OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

One of the big themes this year it seemed was film directors becoming introspective about their careers, their upbringings, and about the art of cinema itself.  This was definitely felt in Damien Chazelle’s look at Hollywood of the Silent Era in Babylon, which looked at cinema’s beginnings.  There were also films like Armageddon Time (2022) which weren’t about the movies per say, but did include autobiographical details based on the childhood of director James Gray, as well as another movie that I’ll get to later.  But perhaps the most unique of these movies about the movies this year was the one by two time Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu.  Bardo finds the director taking a more Fellini-esque journey through several ideas and thoughts that no doubt have been on his mind.  The film flows through different states of reality and hyper-reality, with the director’s avatar, a Mexican documentarian named Silverio, moving dream like through different vignettes that contemplates on issues like artistic integrity, immigration, war, colonialism, being a seen an outsider in the country you live in and a sell out in the country you were born, and many more.  To some, the movie may come across and meandering and self-indulgent, but I found myself enjoying the journey that Inarritu took me on.  It’s weird in all the best ways, and features many of the director’s trademark cinematic tricks.  It’s very much a companion piece with his Oscar-winning Birdman (2014) which was one of my favorite movies of the last decade, though with far less of a direct line for his audience to follow.  There are some hauntingly beautiful moments in this movie, including the opening scene with a shadow cast against a desert landscape, as well as a spectacularly staged party scene in a Mexican night club.  He also does take the movie into some very personal areas that also take you by surprise, like an imagined conversation with his father where we see Silverio’s body reduced to that of a boy but his head still remaining the same in a strange but thought provoking image.  It’s definitely not a movie for everyone, and I seem to be one of it’s few champions, but Bardo was a cinematic journey that I could accept for all it’s eccentricities.

5.

THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN

Directed by Martin McDonough

McDonough has been an accomplished writer and director both on screen and on the stage.  For most of his career, he has been one of the best scribes when it comes to capturing a very Irish sensibility in his stories and characters, at least on the stage.  His movies on the other hand have gone to places like Bruges, the outskirts of Hollywood, and the American Midwest with the small town of Ebbing, Missouri.  Now, with his fourth cinematic outing, he finally comes home on the big screen and focuses his sharp witted writing on the Isle of Ireland.  In particular, he tells the story of a friendship gone sour on the remote island of Inisherin.  The movie reunites McDonough with his two In Bruges (2008) leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, both of whom are excellent in this movie.  McDonough, in all his movies, has been exceptional in crafting darkly humorous situations with characters so colorfully absurd that you can’t help but be transfixed towards seeing just how far they’ll succumb to their own shortcomings.  There’s a great examination of how simple misunderstandings can snowball into far dire consequences, and it’s very entertaining to watch Farrell’s simple minded farmer slowly come to the realization that his unhealthy attachment to companionship may be a destructive force in the lives of those around him.  McDonough’s script is very well constructed, knowing when to use humor at the right times without breaking the dark tone of the movie.  The movie is also quite beautiful to look at, with McDonough giving the magnificent Irish countryside the pastoral splendor that it deserves.  And Farrell and Gleeson are an unforgettable pair that balance each other perfectly, with plenty of character subtleties coming from every line reading that they give.  It’s not easy to make an audience laugh one second and then make them horrified in the next, but The Banshees of Inisherin walks that tightrope with finesse, and it shows that Martin McDonough is probably one of the most accomplished and unique writers working today.  And here, we see him finally bringing that darkly comic Irish sensibility back to it’s roots in a very memorable way.

4.

TAR

Directed by Todd Field

Todd Field is a filmmaker that certainly takes his time between movies.  It’s been 16 years since he last stepped behind the camera, with the drama Little Children (2006), but he has now finally returned with a new film that takes a look at the downfall of an individual in the world of music.  The movie is much more than an examination of cancel culture though.  It’s a truly immersive character study of a person who’s experiencing the collapse of her own reputation primarily through her eyes, with the downfall being surprisingly swift and thorough.  The movie also wisely doesn’t take a stance on whether the character of Lydia Tar is deserving of this quick dismantling of her life.  There are times when we sympathize with her in the way she is blindsided by the severity of the attacks on her and in her often cogent arguments in her defense, but then there are other times when we witness just how nasty a monster she can sometimes be to people, and we understand that she may be due for a comeuppance by the end.  Todd Field expertly guides us through the whole journey that we take with the character, delightfully peeling back every layer over the course of the movie’s 2 1/2 hours.  And to the movie’s credit, it knows when to take it’s time to build towards that catharsis.  At the center of the storm, of course, is a masterful performance from Cate Blanchett, here at the height of her powers.  She is fascinating to watch in this movie, perfectly constructing this larger than life character that has conquered the world of orchestral music at the very beginning, only to end up begging for any job she can get by the end.  Lydia Tar may be 2022’s most memorable character overall, and it will almost certainly earn Blanchett many more awards to put on her mantle.  Todd Field, who has also only directed three films total in his entire career, really establishes himself as a master filmmaker with Tar, and it makes you wonder why he doesn’t do this more often.  Hopefully, he won’t take so long to deliver his next film, because with the visually beautiful and superbly written treat he delivered this year, he has shown that his talent as a filmmaker has only improved over time.

3.

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON

Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp

It’s surprising that the best animated feature of the year didn’t come from any of the usual suspects like Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks.  Nor did it come from a very valiant effort by Guillermo Del Toro with his Pinocchio, which just barely missed my Top 10 this year.  No, the best animated movie of the year came from A24, making it’s first ever family film.  Make no mistake, this is still an A24 film, complete with it’s atypical premise and style that defies genre conventions.  This mockumentary style film uses stop-motion animation to tell the story of a andromorphic snail shell with a single eye and the titular red shoes.  It’s a very simply animated movie, with characters created from household objects that have gained sentience and live in the small corners of human homes.  Marcel is our subject and he is a delightful creation.  Voiced by SNL alum Jenny Slate, Marcel is soft-spoken but outgoing, and immediately endearing.  The movie does a fantastic job of constructing the world of this character, looking at a commonplace location like a suburban home through the eyes of a tiny creature, and giving a simple house the feeling of being this expansive world, much like what the Toy Story movies did.  And like a documentary, the movie gives the sense we are observing this world and this life without pandering to sentimentality.  The low-key animation has it’s own surprises too, especially in the subtle ways it presents personality through just a look or a movement from Marcel and his grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini).  There are plenty of silly moments that generate a well-deserved laugh, like when Marcel has to deal with human scale things like phones, or taming his full sized pet dog.  The movie also genuinely knows when to elicit emotion in the right moments.  But, overall, it’s Marcel as a character that is going to win people over with this movie.  Based on YouTube shorts from 10 years ago, the movie managed to expand it’s world and concept to full length without ever sacrificing it’s charm and it comes down to the character at it’s center who remains an endearing guide through it all.  It’s great to see even small scale animated features like this manage to satisfy on so many levels, even with competition from the big studios who honestly had strong contenders this year too like with Turning Red and Puss in Boots 2.  Definitely step into the world of Marcel and see just how mighty this little guy can be on the big screen.

2.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Directed by Edward Berger

This of course isn’t the first adaptation of this story.  The original novel by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque was picked up by Hollywood immediately after it’s publication in 1929, and was turned into a groundbreaking movie.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was only the third film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and is widely considered to be the first truly great movie to take home that top honor.  Now, nearly a century later, another film adaptation of this classic piece of anti-war literature has been undertaken, but this time, it’s by the country of it’s origin; the nation that lost the war in the first place.  That kind of perspective brings a whole new dimension to the story and the result is one of the most harrowing war movies in recent memory.  This movie goes to even more brutal depths in depicting the horror that was the Great War, even more so than the recent acclaimed 1917 (2019).  What the movie really does well is put you right there on the battle field and gives you the sense of the unrelenting terror that each of these soldiers must of felt each and every day on the front lines of this costly war.  It also does a great job of establishing the inhumanity of war, and how it takes passionate young men and breaks them down into nothing.  A powerful early moment illustrates this perfectly, as bloody uniforms are pulled off the dead, then washed and mended, and handed off to the new batch of recruits who are oblivious that they are putting on recycled combat uniforms.  Apart from a small supporting role from Daniel Bruhl (who plays Baron Zemo in the Marvel Universe), the cast is filled with fresh faced newcomers, which adds to the everyman aspect of their character.  They perfectly convey the despair and desperation that must have come from being relentlessly shot at in that War.  This is, in my opinion, the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan (1998) and one of the most powerful anti-war movies I have ever seen.  Being a Netflix film, it’s unfortunate that too many people aren’t likely to see this on a big screen, but if it is available, I strongly recommend it.  Absolutely powerful cinema, and one of the most unforgettable movie experiences of the year.

And finally….

1.

THE FABLEMANS

Directed by Steven Spielberg

You know, in the 20-plus years that I’ve been keeping track of what my favorite movie of the year has been, not once has Steven Spielberg ever made it to the top spot, until now.  It seems fitting that the movie that finally did it was the one where Spielberg tells his own life’s story.  The Fablemans is a movie about falling in love with the movies, and focusing that passion into a creative drive that leads to a career in filmmaking.  As someone who has tried my best to follow in those same footsteps, there is so much to like in this film.  But it’s not an indulgent movie either.  Sure Steven Spielberg is drawing inspiration from his own life, but the movie isn’t entirely about him either.  Telling the story of the Fableman family, a fictionalized version of Spielberg’s own, the movie is just as much about the mother and father as it is about Steven’s own stand-in.  While we see the blossoming of a young man finding his passion in making movies, we also see the dissolution of his parent’s marriage taking place, and how that has an effect on everyone.  Michelle Williams and Paul Dano perfectly encapsulate the opposing personalities of the two parents, with the mother being a free spirit creative and the father being a mild mannered but also naïve man of science and innovation.  Spielberg treats these depictions of his parents with great love and care, but isn’t afraid to depict the faults in their character that led to the ultimate break-up of their family.  Overall, Spielberg’s style ends up perfectly suiting his own life’s story, and it’s interesting how the Spielbergian trademarks play out in this very personal story.  The movie also features probably my favorite final scene of any movie in recent memory, which shows the Spielberg surrogate Sammy Fableman reaching the point of meeting one of his heroes.  With Spielberg delivering the expected deft direction, and an intelligent and heartfelt screenplay by Steven and his co-writer Tony Kushner, as well as great work by Spielberg mainstays like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the legendary composer John Williams, this was the best cinematic experience I had all year.  Turns out Spielberg at his most personal delivers Spielberg at his very best.

And now, let me quickly run down the 5 worst movies of the year.  There were some movies not found on this list that were objectively worse made, but these were the 5 movies that left me personally the least satisfied at the movies.  So, let’s take one last look before I can officially put these movies behind me.

5. JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION –  I should have known better than to put my hopes up with the return of the original stars from Jurassic Park (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum) to this franchise.  All three are wasted, as more time is still given to the blander new characters from Jurassic World (2015) and it’s sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018).  It’s just slightly better than Fallen Kingdom, but not by much, and it clearly shows that any creative momentum this franchise has had in the past has certainly become extinct like the dinosaurs.

4. BABYLON – Damien Chazelle’s new flick is one of the clearest examples of trying too hard that I’ve seen from a studio film chasing after Oscar gold.  This three hour behemoth is trying to wrap it’s arms around something in it’s depiction of Silent Era Hollywood, but in the end it just feels hollow.  The characters are never truly interesting, or really likable, and it seems at times like Chazelle is getting desperate by adding shock value to some of the more debaucherous moments.  The ending especially ticked me off, because it’s just blatantly stealing from the ending of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), except they swapped out Doc Ock with Spider-Man.  If you want to see a better movie romanticizing a bygone era in Hollywood that also stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) instead.

3.  PINOCCHIO (2022) – Rest assured, this is not the vastly superior stop-motion film made by Guillermo Del Toro.  This is sadly yet another spot taken up by a Disney live action remake of one of the animated classics; something that has become all too common on these worst of the year lists.  Like most of the other Disney remakes of late, this one fails to make the fundamental case as to why it needs to exist in the first place.  It doesn’t improve on the original film at all and in fact is very insulting to the Disney classic as it shoehorns in contemporary jokes, like that awful Chris Pine pun, that betray the spirit of the story.  The usually reliable Tom Hanks seems pretty lost in his attempt to portray Geppetto, and this marks another career low point for director Robert Zemeckis.  The dismal reception this received, even in direct to streaming on Disney+, hopefully sends a message to the new Disney regime that we are growing tired of these pointless remakes.

2. THE GRAY MAN – The closest you’ll get to seeing actual money burn cinematically.  Since the Russo Brothers signed their exclusives deal with Netflix, they’ve brought some of their Marvel contacts over to start-up new action franchises on their own.  They made the action film Extraction (2020) with Chris Hemsworth, and the drama Cherry  (2021) with Tom Holland over at Apple.  This year, they got Netflix to spend a whopping $200 million for this, quite frankly, boring James Bond wannabe that didn’t even register in the top 5 most watched movie premieres on the streamer this year.  Marvel alum Chris Evans delivers a campy villainous turn, but that isn’t enough to make this movie even remotely close to entertaining.  It’s a pure paint by numbers spy flick, but with a colossal waste of money and talent behind it.

And the worst movie of 2022 is…

1. MOONFALL – No big shock, a Roland Emmerich movie made my bottom spot for the year.  Even by the already low standards of Roland Emmerich movies, this was a whole new level of stupid.  Some may argue it falls into the so bad it’s good category, but it was just bad all around for me.  The premise is absurd, with the title pretty much telling you all you need to know, and when you learn why the moon is falling, it makes the dumb idea even dumber.  Anyone with even a middle school level of understanding of how physics work will be pulling their hair out watching this movie.  How can the gravitational pull of the Moon lift giant chunks of the Earth itself up into the air, but not a car that’s driving across it?  Good actors like Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry are clearly just here to collect paychecks, and they’re giving nothing at all to work with.  If you keep falling for the same mistake of continuing to invest money into yet another Roland Emmerich action flick, you certainly deserve to live with the consequences of those actions.  This was supposedly the most expensive independently financed movie off all time, and to no ones surprise except maybe the clueless financiers, one of the biggest money losers of the year.  A definite low point for 2022.

So, there you have my choices for the best and worst of 2022.  There were definitely some bright spots, and I actually had a difficult time figuring out who would take that final 10 spot, as there was a lot of near misses this year.  Clearly the moment I walked out of the theater watching The Fablemans, I knew it was the movie to beat, and two months later, it still beat all challengers to stay #1.  There were definitely some surprises that I discovered as I was preparing this list.  Particularly with how well movies like RRR and Nope stuck with me all through the Summer and to the end of the year.  Same with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, which was a Spring release.  It shows that not all the best movies of the year come out in the final 3 months of Awards season.  The best ones are the  movies that stick with you all the way to years end, no matter how much distance that is.  That’s always been my metric.  Some of my favorites here are probably on the worst list for others, like what I’ve seen in some cases with Bardo and The Whale.  That’s the great thing about seeing everyone’s list, because there are sometimes examples where a critic may be the sole champion for one particular movie that meant a lot to them, but for no one else.  After seeing over a hundred movies over the last year in the cinemas, as well as through streaming, I feel confident that I did my homework this year and had an extensive list of choices to definitely make an informed list of movies this year.  Hopefully those of you who have read this far will find this end of the year list helpful.  With all that, let’s hope for a good year ahead at the movies, and that next year’s list will be strong one as well.

Top Ten Disney Villains Songs

Like many other Halloween seasons, I’ve spotlighted some of the best villains to have graced the silver screen over the years.  I’ve been especially interested in examining the rogues gallery of Disney Animation in particular, mainly because these are the bad guys that I grew up watching as a child and they for me, and a lot of other children like me, left a major impression.  I was especially fortunate to have come of age during the heralded Disney Renaissance of the late 80’s and early 90’s, and with this new crop of instant classic animated features, we were also treated to a whole new group of iconic baddies.  That’s not to say the old timers were forgotten either; they just had more bad company.  But what really sets the Disney Villains apart from most other great movie villains is that they often come with their own theme song.  The Disney Villain songs are often among the best in the whole Disney Songbook.  And I’m sure that they are especially fun for the songwriters to pen, given that you can finally let loose and indulge the dark side a bit to bring some vitriol into the lyrics.  When at their best, a Disney Villain song can be operatic and foreboding but also at the same time subversively campy.  Over the years, Disney has collected quite a few great tunes that are perfect examples of this formula.  Not all of them have to be dark; quite a few are actually quite silly and fun to sing along to.  But what makes the great Villain songs iconic is in how it best sets up the persona of the villain.  It’s in these songs that we learn what makes these characters tick; what motivates them.  We also see how they view themselves, often with vanity and lack of self-awareness.  And the best villain songs are also the ones that firmly establishes these characters’ place within the story and why they will be such a major obstacle to our heroes.

For this article, I’m listing my choices for the Top Ten Disney Villain Songs.  For this, I’m not just limiting it to the canonical animated films; some of the other Disney properties small and large are eligible too, including animated films from other studios within the company.  The only rule is that it has to be a song original to the film that it is in.  What is interesting is that not every villain song is sung by the villain.  It can be sung about them by another character, and those count as well.  Unfortunately some of the greatest Disney villains like Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Lady Tremaine of Cinderella (1950) never get their own songs despite their respective movies being musicals.  And then there are others like Sher Khan from The Jungle Book (1967) and Jafar from Aladdin (1992) who do both get to sing, but only as a part of another character’s song.  There are quite a lot of villain songs to choose from, but what I picked here is what I think represents the best examples of what a Villain song should be, and how much importance it has in the grander history of Disney Animation.  So, let’s sit back and listen to the Top Ten Disney Villain songs.

10.

THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN from THE ADVETURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949)

Music and Lyrics by Don Raye and Gene de Paul; Sung by Bing Crosby

Here’s a case of a Villain song that’s sung about the said menace and not by him.  Honestly, how could he sing, he has no head.  What is interesting about the Headless Horseman song is that it was rarity for it’s time in Disney movies.  Villain songs weren’t a mainstay of Disney movies yet.  The Wicked Queen didn’t have a song in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), nor did any of the trio of villains in Pinocchio (1940).  But, as Walt Disney was beginning to reinvent his studio in the Post War years, he was much more inclined to make music an important feature in his story, even with the villainous characters.  The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) was the last of the package features of Disney’s post-war period; a cost saving measure that allowed Disney to release feature length films without having the expense of making feature length stories.  As the title would suggest, this film contained adaptations of the classic stories The Wind in the Willows (with it’s lead character Mr. Toad) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (with the character of Ichabod Crane).  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving is one of the foundational texts of American Fiction literature, so it was going to be interesting to see how Disney would adapt this gothic tale in it’s own style.  When it comes to the iconic Headless Horseman himself, Disney did a pretty remarkable job in bringing him to life, because he is genuinely terrifying.  What helps to set up his memorable presence at the conclusion of this film is the song that establishes his terrifying mythology.  For a story set in colonial America and with a terrifying monster as it’s subject, it’s odd that the Disney songwriters would use contemporary swing music for the style of this song.  And yet it works.  It probably helps that one of America’s most iconic singers, Bing Crosby, was tasked with giving the tune it’s unique sound.  It’s got a catchy beat, but there is kind of a spooky undertone to the whole song which guides it and makes it work as a pretext to the ghostly Horseman we meet later.  This song is one I would see presented on Disney Channel Halloween specials all the time, so I especially associate it with this time of year.  So don’t try to figure out a plan, you can’t reason with a headless man.

9.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF? from THE THREE LITTLE PIGS (1933)

Music by Frank Churchill; Lyrics by Ted Sears; Sung by Dorothy Compton, Mary Moder and Pinto Colvig

We of course can’t talk about Disney Villain songs without mentioning the original.   During the early 1930’s, Walt Disney helped to grow his burgeoning studio with a series of one-shot short cartoons to run alongside his enormously popular Mickey Mouse series.  These were called the Silly Symphonies.  They were short stories often centered around music, but also based on familiar fables and fairy tales.  These shorts were often more ambitious in their artistry, and it’s where Disney had his team experiment and refine the tools they would need to eventually make feature length films.  Without question, the most popular of these Silly Symphonies was a short based on the fable of The Three Little Pigs.  But even more famous than the short itself was the song that was written for it about it’s memorable antagonist, the Big Bad Wolf.  In another example of a song about a villain and not sung by him, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” is a very simple song about facing down the menace in front of you and staying strong, though with a sense of naivete.  The titular pigs first sing the song as a taunt, shirking off the danger of the wolf and devoting themselves to oblivious playtime.  But, as the wolf blows down both of the first pigs’ homes of straw and wood, they eventually escape to the third pig’s house of bricks.  Then they sing the song again but this time, it’s a song of defiance.  This resonated with audiences who were going through the Great Depression at the time.  As much as the Big Bad Wolf of the Depression was going to push them down, Americans were going to pick themselves up again.  “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” transcended it’s place in the story and became a rallying cry of resilience in a hard time for this country.  Because of that, it became Disney’s first ever chart topping hit.  It’s especially remarkable that a villain song would be the first tune to actually do that for the Disney Company, which of course would not be the last.  No matter how small or simple a villain song may be, if it connects with it’s audience, it can become a part of the culture itself.

8.

FRIENDS ON THE OTHER SIDE from THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)

Music and Lyrics by Randy Newman;  Sung by Keith David

One of the more recent classic villain songs comes from this noble attempt by Disney to restart up their traditional animation unit in an era of computer animation dominance.  Naturally, they turned to the formula that worked so well during the Renaissance years; classic fairy tales with Broadway sized musical numbers.  With The Princess and the Frog, they shook things up a bit, setting the famous fairy tale of the Frog Prince in 1920’s New Orleans, and centering around their first African American princess, named Tiana.  Because this was a New Orleans set story, naturally the music had to be jazz influenced.  Bringing over Pixar mainstay Randy Newman to write the score and songs, they found that unique Cajun country sound and worked it into every melody in this story, including of course for it’s Villain song.  The antagonist for this version of the story is a Voodoo practicing Witch Doctor and conman named Dr. Facilier, played with gusto by veteran actor Keith David.  He makes his grand entrance into the story by ensnaring Prince Naveen into making a devil’s bargain and thereby turning him into a frog.  And his introduction is of course through song.  The jazz influence is especially felt in this tune, feeling very much in the same class as the big band music of Cab Calloway.  The song “Friends on the Other Side” really does feel like a spiritual cousin to the jazz music of old time cartoons, like the Fleischer studios shorts that were often dark and creepy in their own way; which Calloway in fact contributed music to as well.  Keith David, who’s not really known as a singing performer, manages to belt out this complex song with remarkable skill.  The animation also does a great job of making this a big show stopping number, even working some of Cab Calloway’s swaying and strutting into Dr. Facilier’s dance moves.  With this, Disney showed that even though the Renaissance era formula was not as resilient as it once was they could still deliver a Villain song that stood up well with the best of them.

7.

WE DON’T TALK ABOUT BRUNO from ENCANTO (2021)

Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Sung by Carolina Gaitan, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero, and Stephanie Beatriz

Is it possible to write a Villain song for a character that isn’t a villain.  Furthermore, is it possible to make that same song a record-breaking hit.  Well, that’s what actor and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda found out when he wrote this latest Disney mega-hit earworm.  In the story of Encanto, we follow the story of the magical Madrigal family.  They are a family celebrated for their gifts and are closely knit unit, but there is one part o f their family history that they wish to erase; the eldest son of the family, Bruno.  As we learn in the film, Bruno is not malevolent figure but rather misunderstood outcast who is sadly shunned by his own family for no good reason.  But, we learn that later on in the story after the Madrigal family air their grievances in this ensemble tune.  They each share their bad experiences that resulted after hearing the oracle like prophecies that Bruno gathered through his powers.  It all makes Bruno seem like this mischievous agent of chaos, but in reality it’s a projection of their own anxieties coming to the forefront and they are just scapegoating the messenger for making them miserable.  But, in the tradition of great Disney Villain songs, this song establishes a more foreboding tone and does so with one of the catchiest beat in a Disney movie in quite some time, thanks to the talents of the award winning Miranda.  This song became a surprise hit for Disney, even surpassing the record-breaking success of Frozen’s “Let it Go.”  Sure Disney can still make a hit song, but it rarely these days is it the film’s ‘villain” song and even much less a ensemble one at that.  But, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is that rare exception and it’s easy to see why.  It’s catchy, it sets the right tone, and it’s a great centerpiece to the message to the story, which is to not judge something on it’s surface level.  With all that it’s a hard thing to say no to Bruno, no, no.

6.

GASTON from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)

Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman: Sung by Jessi Corti and Richard White

Proof that not all Villain songs need to be dark and menacing.  Like this one, it can be a fun, foot tapping romp of a song.  We don’t see the darker, murderous aspects of Gaston’s character until the latter half of the movie.  Up to this song, Gaston is just a town jock who mistakenly believes that he’s the right person for the most beautiful girl in town; our heroine Belle.  After being rejected by her, Gaston sulks in his tavern, and is only uplifted once his lackey LeFou begins to sing his praises.  The whole song basically one big ego trip for the villain, but like all the other songs in the movie, it’s exceptionally catchy and well-written.  You really have to admire the creativity on lyricist Howard Ashman’s part to fill so many funny lines into every part of the song.  It’s especially a special trick to work the word expectorating into a song, but he managed to do it.  And I’m sure everyone has repeated the most laugh out loud line, “Every last inch of me is covered with hair.”  Still, the song does a good job of establishing Gaston as a foe worth fearing.  He’s vain and he’s strong, which is a dangerous match.  After the light hearted part of the song finishes, the movie takes a turn when Belle’s father warns of her imprisonment in the Beast’s castle, coming across as a raving lunatic in that tavern setting.  After Maurice is kicked out, Gaston begins to contemplate a plot to incarcerate the old man as ransom for Belle’s affections, and the song starts up again with a whole different context to Gaston’s character in it’s reprise.  This is a perfect example of character building within a villains song, where a villain’s true nature emerges through how the song is used as part of the story.  Before we see Gaston as a local town hero; afterwards we see him as the schemer he really is.  Even still, it remains that rare jovial villains song, and a perfect fit for the character himself.  Broadway performer Richard White does an especially great job of belting out this song with the gusto that a blowhard like Gaston would want to be heard with.  In the pantheon of memorable Disney villain song performances, no one sings as hard as Gaston.

5.

OOGIE BOOGIE SONG from TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

Music and Lyrics by Danny Elfman; Sung by Ken Page

Looking outside the canonical Disney animated films for a moment, there is one unmistakable classic villain song from this stop-motion film about the collision of two holidays.  From the mind of Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a story about the denizens of Halloweentown, a community of creatures associated with the holiday, who all decide that they want to participate in Christmas time as well, all spear-headed by their ruler the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington.  Though scary on the outside, the citizens of Halloweentown are not mean spirited and cruel.  That is except for the boogie man who has been exiled out of town, Oogie Boogie.  When Jack Skellington believes he has granted Santa Claus an overdue holiday of his own, he in actuality has sent him off to be tortured by the malicious Oogie in his underground dungeon.  Oogie Boogie is a very minor character in the story overall, appearing for the first time very late in the film, but boy does he make the most of his limited screen time.  Composer Danny Elfman’s score for the film is distinctly within his style, similar to the work he had done for other Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1989), only now as a full blown musical.  And though the Elfman sound is present in every song, he still manages to experiment a little with style, especially when it comes to Oogie Boogie.  Given the giant sack of bugs’ proclivity towards gambling, Elfman gave his song a speak-easy jazz club sound, and it’s a perfect match for the character.  It also helps that St. Louis-bred Broadway performer Ken Page gives a boisterous performance as the character, very similar to the Cab Calloway sound that Dr. Facilier was also inspired by.  Of the songs that Danny Elfman wrote for the film, you’d have to imagine that this was one of the more fun ones to write.  And for a villain with very little to do in the movie as a whole, you couldn’t have asked for a better villain’s song to announce his presence in the grandest way possible.

4.

CRUELLA DE VIL from 101 DALMATIANS (1961)

Music and Lyrics by Mel Leven; Sung by Bill Lee

The classic 101 Dalmatians is not a musical, but it still contains two original songs.  One of those songs just happens to be about the movie’s iconic villainess, Cruella De Vil, and naturally just like it’s subject, it is one of Disney’s all time greats.  Another one of those songs that’s about the villain and not sung by her, “Cruella De Vil” is a great example of using a song to establish everything that makes your villain as memorably mean as they can be.  Worked into the story by the fact that the titular Dalmatians’ owner, Roger Radcliffe, is a songwriter by trade, this song is a perfect accompaniment for the scene that introduces Cruella into the movie in a memorable way.  Roger makes no illusion about his distaste for Cruella through all the devious, venomous lyrics of his impromptu song, probably as a means of teasing his beloved wife Anita who is still associated with the fashion diva, but the subject matter does manage to live up to song that’s about her.  The introduction scene has the song as bookends to Cruella’s introduction, with the melody playing throughout, and it’s one of the great Disney villain intros of all time.  Cruella flies through the scene in a smoke filled fury, like a hurricane sweeping through the Radcliffe home and it perfectly establishes her chaotic nature right away.  And with the song there as part of that scene, the character and her tune are linked forever.  It’s a nice representation of post-War British pop music as well, the kind of sound that would define the culture of that period before Beatle-mania would shake things up again.  Even so many years after it was first heard, this song is still a favorite, often re-mixed and performed anew by musicians and singers of all ages.  Cruella De Vil is a character that remains one of the all time great Disney villains and it’s fitting that the song that follows her legend around also remains popular to this day.

3.

BE PREPARED from THE LION KING (1994)

Music by Elton John; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Sung by Jeremy Irons and Jim Cummings

The Lion King has one of the most iconic and ground-breaking musical scores of any Disney film, so it’s only natural that it’s villain’s song would be among the best too.  Scar, the power-hungry uncle of our main hero Simba, is certainly one of the darker villains in the Disney canon.  It’s not exactly easy to write a song for a character whom we know has murder as an intent in his master plan.  You can’t make the song too entertaining because it might make the character too likable.  In the movie, they manage to give the right tone to Scar’s villain song, “Be Prepared.”  It’s catchy, but also foreboding.  You can’t really get much darker than bringing in fascist style imagery as Scar’s army of hyenas march past him like it’s out of a Leni Riefenstahl film.  But it works perfectly in establishing just how much of a threat Scar would be as a king.  Elton John and Tim Rice do a perfect job of making the style of a villain’s song work in the African-influenced sound of the entire film’s score, especially with the percussion beat.  They are also not afraid to bring a little bit of camp into Scar’s performance of the song as well; this is a Disney villain song after all.  It is also a song that is perfectly matched with the vocal performance of Jeremy Irons in the role of Scar.  The actor is a talented singer, but he’s not really known that well for that talent as an actor.  Here, he was allowed to show how much rhythm he could get out of that natural gravelly voice of his, and it’s perfectly attuned to this type of song.  It’s especially effective the way he growls out the title “Be Prepared” in the way a lion would roar it.  Unfortunately, Iron’s range couldn’t quite hit the high notes in the final part of the song, so veteran voice actor Jim Cummings (who also played the hyena Ed in the film) was called upon to match Irons performance as best as he could to complete the song.  It’s honestly pretty seamless, and I didn’t even know that the voices change in the song until many years later.  In the movie, the staging also reaches very Broadway levels of spectacle, with the green glow of the geysers giving the whole number an eerie feel.  It’s a great match of voice, music and staging put together for one of the quintessential Disney villain songs in the whole songbook.  So, be prepared for this classic to be talked about for a long time.

2.

HELLFIRE from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)

Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Sung by Tony Jay

By far and by a mile this is the darkest villain song Disney has ever had in one of their films, and probably the darkest in the songbook as a whole.  It’s only fitting that it comes from one of Disney’s darkest villains; Judge Claude Frollo.  For a lot of people, it seemed like a fool’s errand to try to take Victor Hugo’s medieval gothic tale and turn it into a musical with a happy ending.  But Disney managed to do their best with it, and still maintain some of the book’s darker elements in tact.  Frollo is the one character that feels most aligned with the original tone of the novel in this adaptation, and remarkably the team of Menken and Schwartz were able to give him a song that fit with his character.  The pious, unforgiving and deviously minded tyrant is certainly not an easy character to write for, so what do you have him singing about.  What Menken and Schwartz stumbled upon was a crisis of faith that roils inside of the character, as he believes he is doing God’s work on Earth, and yet he lusts for a woman who is from the gypsy race that he has deemed to be unholy in the eyes of God.  In the movie, we see his inner turmoil boil over into some heavy demonic imagery as faceless red robed figures encircle him in a dark room illuminated by fire.  This haunting imagery goes beyond what we’ve seen in most other Disney movies, descending into a really gothic and macabre vision of what Frollo’s hellscape may be like.  “Hellfire” really stands out as a song not just for that kind of imagery, but also for the tour de force vocal performance of Tony Jay.  The veteran voice actor manages to achieve remarkable range with that deep baritone of his, even hitting that killer of a high note at the end.  His vocal performance as Frollo beforehand was already an iconic one for a Disney villain, but this villain song takes him immediately into legendary status.  You can tell that the filmmakers were really testing their boundaries with this villain song, and they probably ended up being surprised by just how far the Disney execs actually let them go.  And like all the best Villain songs, it firmly establishes the soul of the character it’s about, and with Frollo we really reach as close to the depths of darkness as Disney has ever gone before.  “Hellfire” is Disney at it’s very darkest, and that is something that truly makes it’s presence in this movie, and as part of the Disney songbook as a whole, truly iconic.

1.

POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS from THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)

Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Pat Carroll

If you are looking for just that one song that encapsulates every that is great about a villain song, look no further than the one that comes from the dastardly sea witch, Ursula.  “Poor Unfortunate Souls” has it all; a great melody, genius lyrics, a killer vocal performance and an important place with the story it’s a part of.  This really is the gold standard of great Disney villain songs, and it’s fitting that it came as part of the movie that helped to launch the Disney Renaissance.  Alan Menken and Howard Ashman had refined their talents on Broadway before coming to Disney, but even before that they belonged to the same Baltimore area art scene that produced the likes of edgy, maverick filmmaker John Waters.  And by being in that circle, they became friends with drag performer Divine, who would end up being a major influence on the character of Ursula.  While Ashman was writing the lyrics to this song, I wonder if he was imagining how Divine would look singing this same tune on stage.  Divine passed away before the movie completed, so she never got that opportunity, but this tribute does live on.  Not only is is operatic and Broadway like in it’s sound, but you can hear Menken and Ashman working a bit of burlesque into the song as well, which is perfectly suited for a show off character like Ursula.  But what really makes this song iconic is the vocal performance by the late, great Pat Carroll.  The actress and comedian was not a natural singer, but you wouldn’t know that by the absolute commitment she brings to her performance here, much of which she imitated from Ashman’s own rendition in his demo tape, including the ad-libs like “innit.”  But what is amazing is how the song goes from quiet and sultry in the beginning to big and operatic by the end, and Pat does not miss a beat.  It’s a song that like all the others in the movie The Little Mermaid announces that Disney is back with a vengeance.  “Poor Unfortunate Souls” remains a popular tune 30 years later, and it’s a special favorite for drag performers who understand the song’s history and inspiration behind it.  And it of course does what all the best villains song do; shine a spotlight on it’s villain.  Ursula is obviously the kind of villain who deserves the best, and it didn’t cost much; just a voice.

So, there you have the ten best Disney villain songs in my own opinion.  I definitely tried to weigh how much each song meant to the films they come from, and how well they stand out in the whole history of the Disney songbook.  It’s surprising to see how some songs from the early days of Disney still resonate so many years later.  The song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” is not just an icon of Disney movies, but of the culture as well, as it became a rally cry for Depression effected Americans.  The songs for Cruella De Vil and the Headless Horseman have also withstood the test of time, with the Headless Horseman song even being a Disney Halloween staple.  But of course, it’s the Renaissance era songs that resonate the most, as the Broadway influence became much more intertwined with the music of Disney Animation.  Ursula, Gaston, Scar and Frollo have each been elevated in the Disney rogues gallery not just by their dark deeds but also by these iconic songs that shine a spotlight on them within the story.  It’s just too bad that as Disney has moved away from the musical formula, it has also made the Villains song less of a presence as well.  I think one of the reasons “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became such a big hit as it was may have been due to the drought of memorable villain songs that had come before it.  There are other interesting villain songs that I left out of my list, like “The Elegant Captain Hook” from Peter Pan (1953), “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” from The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and “Shiny” from Moana (2016), and Disney has produced many other spooky themed song that don’t necessarily categorized as a villain song, like the Haunted Mansion’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”  Needless to say, Villain songs are a valuable category all to themselves in the great Disney songbook, and these tunes are especially popular during this spooky time of year.  I hope you found my choices interesting and well placed.  I hope some of your favorites are here as well.  So, have a festive Halloween this year and like the tunes sung on this list put a little spell on you.

Top Ten Movie Theaters Around Hollywood

Today we are all used to going to the movie theaters at any numerous multiplex location in our area; most likely attached to malls or any other retail/dining complex destination.  But, this wasn’t always how movies were presented to the public.  Once upon a time, movies were distributed to locations across the country that operated out of single screen venues.  Often these movie theaters of the past were old town halls or music venues that were converted into movie theaters once the artform began to mature into the cultural institution that it is today.  The number of screens depended on the size of the community, but the venues themselves were big and spacious, dwarfing the amount of seating per screen at most movie theaters today.  During the height of the studio system, new movie theaters began to spring up alongside these converted old music halls, and it created a flourishing of what became known as the Movie Palace.  Not only did these movie theaters flourish during this time, but the owners put a great amount of investment into making them opulent and works of art on their own.  But, the Paramount decision that broke up the studio system in the 1950’s also disrupted the revenue stream that kept many of these palaces alive.  Over time, it just wasn’t economically sound to continue rolling out movies slowly to these single screen venues.  Soon, the multiplex became the preferred theatrical model for Hollywood, and the movies palaces slowly died out across the country, many being demolished or returning back to their previous status as a concert venue.  Still, there are many movie palaces of the glory days of Hollywood that have managed to survive, either through community support, heritage protection status, or generous funding from wealthy investors.  You can find many of these movie palaces sprinkled throughout the country, but perhaps the biggest concentration of them anywhere can be found right in the heart of Hollywood itself.

Hollywood is more than just the center of the movie industry.  It is a destination of it’s own, drawing in visitors from around the world.  The heart of tourism in Hollywood is naturally the street that gave the industry it’s namesake; Hollywood Boulevard.  There you’ll find the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as famous haunts of the Hollywood Elite like Crossroads of the World, The Roosevelt Hotel, and Musso & Frank’s Bar and Grill.  But of course the biggest draw in Hollywood is the collection of iconic movie theaters that line up along Hollywood Blvd, as well as on the side streets of Vine, Highland, and Sunset.  There were many more theaters that used to line these streets of the past, but the survivors that still operate today continue to be a big draw and are among the most famous movie theaters in the world.  These movie theaters also are where the biggest film premieres take place, with A-list talent riding up Hollywood Blvd. in their limos quite frequently throughout the year.  No wonder the Dolby Theater, home of the Academy Awards, was built in this same neighborhood.  But, Hollywood Blvd. is not the only place around Hollywood that has managed to retain their own legendary movie palaces.  There are other great one of a kind movie theater experiences found across Los Angeles connected to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and are still very popular among the local Angelino community.  What follows is my list of the top 10 theater experiences in the Greater Hollywood area.  I have seen at least one movie in all of these theaters, so I’m basing my choices on personal insight.  For a theater to make it on my list, it has to be a singular unique venue.  It can be part of a theater chain and have an adjoining smaller screen connected to it, but the theater must be currently operational or in the process of being renovated for film screening purposes, solely used for movie screenings, and independent of other theaters of it’s kind.  So no legendary closed theaters of the past like the Carthay Circle or the Pacific, or a converted venue like the Pantages or Avalon Theaters, which have long since been used for performances instead of film.  So, let’s take a look at the best movie theaters around the heart of Hollywood.

10.

THE NUART THEATER

Location: West Lost Angeles, Santa Monica, Blvd.

The Nuart Theater may be the most outlying theater in the vicinity of Hollywood within the Los Angeles city limits.  It’s far out near Santa Monica in the Sawtelle neighborhood, literally right next to the 405 freeway that crosses by it.  One would say that it’s as far away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as you can get for an independent movie house in LA.  So, what makes it so special.  Over time, the Nuart has used it’s outsider status to become a haven for Avant Garde and revolutionary cinema.  The movie theater started out like any other movie palace of the past, opening in 1929 on the Santa Monica Blvd. stretch that marked the final leg to the ocean of the historic Route 66.  Naturally, being on the thoroughfare that many beach goers were taking to reach those famous coastal waves, the Nuart attracted a younger crowd, and likewise their line-up of movies catered to their cinematic tastes.  In the counterculture 60’s and 70’s, the Nuart played host to many experimental films that were emerging from some of the industry’s most renegade filmmakers.  Filmmakers like John Waters, David Lynch, and many other indie darlings were instrumental fixtures here during their rise as filmmakers.  The theater has changed hands numerous times, but despite the change of management, it has still retained it’s art house cred within the community and in Hollywood in general.  It’s probably best known today for it’s late night screenings, including it’s long tradition of the interactive screenings of the cult hit The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).  Renovated extensively in 2006, the Nuart still retains it’s independent spirit while still keeping up with the most advanced technology, helping to give viewers the best possible experience with movies that fall outside of the Hollywood norm.

9.

THE LUMIERE MUSIC HALL

Location: Beverly Hills, Wilshire Blvd.

The Music Hall has certainly one of the most storied histories among the local theaters in Hollywood.  As the name suggests, it wasn’t always a movie theater.  It operated as a venue for live entertainment and studio for radio and television since it’s opening in 1936 and up to 1956, when it made it’s conversion to  movies.  Like the Nuart, it specialized in art house cinema, becoming an especially popular place for foreign imports.  It operated for over 40 years under the local Laemmle chain, until the lease was up in 2019, and the landlord began exploring other options for the building that the theater is attached to.  Laemmle decided not to extend their lease and it looked like the longtime Beverly Hills fixture was going to close for good.  However, a trio of Laemmle theater veterans decided to form their own management company to pick up the lease in order to keep the theater open independently.  This new team of Luis Orellana, Lauren Brown and Peter Ambrosio were given a one year lease plus a renewal option to reestablish the theater and show that it could operate on it’s own.  For a while, it looked like the Music Hall was saved.  Then, only 5 months after the lease was set, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters across the country.   This was a devastating blow to the new managements plans.  They were able to generate some revenue from movie streaming on their website as well as opening up their lobby to concession and merchandise sales, but these were paltry compared to the money lost from no ticket sales.  Thankfully, the lease was given an extension and the theater did re-open in March of 2021.  It continues to run art house movies on it’s three screens.  The theater’s main theater, the 200 seat Auditorium 3 is the best preserved part of the theater that represents how it appeared in it’s early days.  Though a small operation, it’s nevertheless an important fixture in the historical footprint of cinema in the Los Angeles area, and with it’s dedicated management team, it’s one that is dedicated to preserving the theatrical experience for years to come.

8.

THE BRUIN THEATER

Location: Westwood Village, Broxton Ave.

If you’ve seen a movie theater appear in a Hollywood set movie, chances are it was this one.  The Bruin Theater definitely has movie star looks to it, with it’s striking art deco façade.  But, it’s actually not anywhere near Hollywood itself, instead being situated far off in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, taking it’s namesake from the university’s mascot.  It’s been a fixture of Westwood since it’s opening in 1937 and is seated on the corner of Broxton and Weyburn Avenues, right across the street from it’s larger sister theater, the Fox Westwood Village Theater.  The Bruin has a single level cascade style auditorium with a large screen capable of running everything from 35 to 70 mm.  It’s a popular venue for movie premieres in the area, especially from the nearby 20th Century studio lot.  But, what is interesting is that the Bruin has often appeared frequently in movies itself.  Filmmakers such as John Frankenheimer, Robert Redford, and Paul Schrader have all used the Bruin as a location in their film.  Most recently, Quentin Tarantino featured the Bruin in his period film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate stopping by it to watch a movie that she herself starred in.  Today, it still runs blockbuster films and is a favorite for the local student population from UCLA.  Having been operated by Regency Theaters since 2010, the theater still maintains it’s art deco style and looks pretty much the same as it did when it first opened.  It’s most defining feature is the blue and gold neon marquee out front, reflective of the universities school colors, as well as a shining example of mid century design that invokes the golden age of Hollywood.  The spherical marquee alone makes this one of the most picturesque landmarks in the area, but the theater that is housed inside it, which still maintains it’s own art deco style, is also something that should not be missed.

7.

THE NEW BEVERLY CINEMA

Location: Fairfax, Beverly Blvd.

Speaking of Quentin Tarantino, we can’t talk about local Hollywood theaters without mentioning the one that the famed director owns an operates himself.  The building that it is housed in dates back to 1929, but it wasn’t used as a theater until the 1950’s.  Being a little out of the way from the heart of Hollywood, the Beverly Cinema specialized more on independent cinema, namely cheap grindhouse movies.  Hence why this particular theater was so special to local aspiring filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.  The theater over time ran into financial hard times during the 1980’s, resorting at one point to being a porno theater.  As Tarantino began to gain clout in the movie industry, he sought to help out the struggling theater and spent much of his money helping to subsidize it.  After the owner of the theater passed away, Tarantino jumped in and saved the theater from closing, purchasing it outright in 2007.  The New Beverly Cinema as it has since been called now presents a series of screenings curated by the director with one key requirement; that it must be screened with real film.  As Tarantino has said in his mission statement for the Beverly: “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm.”  And that’s exactly what has happened.  The theater has been renovated from it’s once duplex layout to a full single auditorium, and has become a favorite venue for film stock purists like Mr. Tarantino.  The theater even holds special event screenings, with live discussions with filmmakers, including Tarantino and his closest friends.  It’s a specialized venue where one is able to see classic films screened in the traditional style, but every now and then visitors may been even treated to a special showing of a first run movie, as long as it’s shown on film.  It’s certainly a living tribute to the dedication of one prominent film fan who not only wants to preserve the experience of watching a movie, but to also maintain the uniqueness of the places in which the movies are seen.

6.

THE VISTA THEATER

Location: East Hollywood, Sunset Drive

On the far eastern edge of Hollywood is this single screen gem that has been a fixture of the nearby Los Feliz community.  It’s outsider status among the movie palaces in the Hollywood area has helped to keep it unique in character from the rest.  In particular, it has managed to remain a beautifully maintained time capsule of the movie palaces of early Hollywood.  Built from the ground up in 1923 solely for the presentation of movies, The Vista is a beautiful art deco infused venue with Egyptian inspired interiors.  The mix of old and new blends perfectly into a stunning palace for the movies.  Like the Bruin, the Vista has itself appeared in a number of movies, probably most famously playing the part of the movie theater in the prologue of Wes Craven’s Scream 2 (1997).  It went through it’s hard times in the 70’s and 80’s, at one time screening adult films for a while.  But, it was picked up by the Landmark Cinemas chain and was renovated heavily in the 1990’s, helping to bring the theater back to it’s old glory.  However, the Vista faced a huge crises when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.  It left the Landmark chain in significant trouble, and in 2021 when the rest of the theater market was finally beginning to re-open, the Vista remained closed.  The marquee out front still read the words “To Be Continued,” but that remained significantly in doubt as Landmark began downsizing after the blow of the pandemic.  It was soon revealed that Landmark was putting the theater on the market, which left many movie fans worried, especially if the property fell into the hands of a developer with no intent on preserving the theater, instead choosing to demolish it in favor of upscale retail or housing.  To everyone’s delight a buyer came forward with the intent of not only preserving the theater, but also bringing it back to it’s former glory.  And that buyer is of course, you guessed it, Mr. Quentin Tarantino.  Upon buying the property, Tarantino also started an extensive refurbishment of the whole theater, costing in the range of $6 million.  Unlike the New Beverly Cinema, which runs a curated program of classic movies, Tarantino still intends to have first run movies play at the Vista like they had before, although his prerequisite of film stock presentations will still be in place.  The theater is expected to finish it’s remodel in the next couple months and hopes to open to the public late 2022 or early 2023.  One hopes that under Tarantino’s management the Vista will have a bright future ahead of it.

5.

THE FOX WESTWOOD VILLAGE THEATER

Location: Westwood, Broxton Ave.

Located right across the street from the smaller Bruin, the Westwood Village theater dwarfs all others in the Hollywood area.  Seating nearly 1,500 people, it’s the single largest movie theater in Los Angeles by capacity.  With two levels of seating, audiences throughout the venue will have a perfect view of the enormous screen, capable of presenting film in the largest formats available, other than IMAX.  Apart from the size of the venue, it’s also noteworthy for it’s skyscraping tower above the marquee.  The 170 foot tower has been the centerpiece of the Westwood skyline since the theater first opened in 1931, and it looks pretty much the same as when it was first built.  Not only has it been an iconic structural feature, but it’s also contributed to the marquee presentations of several films that have played there, with the spacious façade of the tower’s front view displaying large promotional banners and posters over the years.  At night, the white tower stands out illuminated by spotlights, becoming an eye-catching sight for locals and tourists alike.  Inside, the art deco influence remains about the same from the early days of the theaters history.  In many ways, it’s the big brother equivalent of the nearby Bruin Theater.  Inside, they look very similar, but the Westwood Village is just grander in scale.  It’s an especially popular theater for the Hollywood elite.  Not only is it visited my many movie stars that live in the area, but it’s also a popular venue for movie premieres as well.  Some filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have often cited the Westwood Village to be one of their favorite theaters in the world, which is pretty high praise.  Like the Bruin, it’s also a popular hangout of the local UCLA student body, and it’s often where many of them will catch the latest blockbuster film, with the Bruin usually the better option for smaller, independent films.  With it’s striking exterior and it’s immense scale, the Westwood Village certainly stands as the most striking example of the movie palace boom at it’s very peak, showing the presentation of film at it’s most epic scale, and setting the bar high for others like it.

4.

THE EGYPTIAN THEATER

Location: Hollywood, Hollywood Blvd.

Here is the granddaddy of them all.  The Grauman’s Egyptian is the single oldest movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard that is still standing.  Tucked away at the end of a courtyard in an alcove off of Hollywood Blvd, this venue is about to reach it’s century mark.  Opened in 1922, this Egyptian themed theater has been a landmark for Hollywood throughout the years.  In many ways, this was the theater that sparked the movie palace craze, with it’s attention to thematic architecture as a part of it’s appeal to audiences.  Not only was the theming apparent from the outside, with the concrete walls carved to look like the ancient ruins of an Egyptian temple, complete with hieroglyph paintings and statues of Egyptian pharaohs, but the interior featured columns modeled after those found in Egypt and an ornate sunburst ceiling fixture inspired by art found in ancient Egyptian tombs.  It was a magnificent architectural wonder for it’s time and a gem in the rising boom of movie palaces spreading across the heart of Hollywood.  While most of the theaters around the Egyptian went away over the years, the classic icon managed to stay afloat.  It remained a popular theater for many visiting Hollywood over the years.   But, hard times in the 80’s led to it’s closing in 1992.  Thankfully, it’s historical landmark status saved it from demolition and in 1996 American Cinematheque bought the theater with the provision of renovating it.  Controversially, the theater was gutted of many of it’s ornate fixtures, most of which had fallen under disrepair over the years due to neglect.  Thankfully, the forecourt was restored to it’s original glory.  American Cinematheque maintained the renovated theater for 20 years, using it as a special venue for classic film screenings and discussions.  But, in 2018, another interested party came in to purchase the theater for themselves; streaming giant Netflix.  The purchase was finalized in 2019, with Netflix still allowing American Cinematheque permission to program screenings at the theater in addition to their own events.  A renovation was planned as well, though it was delayed by a year due to the pandemic.  The Egyptian is still in the middle of that extensive overhaul, which will include restoring the interior back to it’s original ornate beauty, and the hope is to have it open by the end of the year in order to have it open for the 100th anniversary.  Let’s hope that Netflix gives the old theater the fresh update it deserves and continues to make it a must see landmark in the heart of Hollywood.

3.

THE EL CAPITAN THEATER

Location: Hollywood, Hollywood Blvd.

The El Capitan is another survivor of the decline of classic movie palaces across the country and in Los Angeles.  The venue was first opened in 1926, situated right across the street from where another icon would eventually emerge on Hollywood Boulevard, the Chinese Theater.  Unlike the other theaters in the area, the El Capitan doesn’t stick out like with an iconic façade.  It instead is tucked behind an office building, with it’s marquee entrance stretching out to the street.  From the outside, it’s kind of an unassuming and even ugly structure, but looks are deceiving.  On the inside you will find one of the most ornate and stunningly beautiful screening rooms in all of Hollywood.  The interior is a beautiful mix of art deco and gothic combining into a wall to wall ambiance that in some ways may even overshadow what you are seeing on the screen.  The theater has gone through many ups and downs over the years.  It closed briefly in the 1930’s due to the effects of the Depression, and then re-opened as the Hollywood Paramount, eventually ending up in the ownership of United Artists thereafter.  It’s final independent owners, Pacific Theaters, ended their ownership in 1989, and the El Capitan fell into disrepair while sitting empty.  Then, in 1991, the theater re-opened under a new owner, the Walt Disney Company, who restored both the name and the theater itself to it’s original glory.  It held it’s first premiere, The Rocketeer (1991) following the remodel and since then it has been Disney’s home for all of it’s world premieres, showcasing everything from their animated features to the latest Marvel and Star Wars films.  Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige even chose the El Capitan as the venue to showcase to an excited crowd the then future Phase 3 plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Whether you’re a Disney fan or not, the El Capitan is still a landmark theater well worth checking out.  Not only does it give you a beautiful look at the ornateness of old Hollywood movie palaces, but it even has maintained another fixture of old Hollywood that most other theaters have removed over the years; a classic theater pipe organ, which is still played by a trained organist before select shows.  Here you’ll have the best combination of the old and new Hollywood together; classic theater ambiance combined with Disney’s unparalleled theatricality and state-of-the-art presentations of the biggest new blockbusters.

2.

THE CINERAMA DOME

Location: Hollywood, Sunset Blvd.

A personal favorite of mine and for many Los Angeles locals, the Cinerama Dome is a venue unlike any other in the world.  The youngest theater on this list by quite a stretch, it opened in 1963 as a venue custom built to present the new widescreen film format known as Cinerama.  Cinerama was known for it’s immersive curved screen presentation, and what better way to spotlight that then to make the structure that the theater is housed in visually spherical itself.  Situated near the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a short distance from the heart of Hollywood, the Cinerama Dome is unique for being the largest concrete geodesic dome in the world.  The interior is a masterwork of mid-century design, with a sweeping curtain covering the length of the screen end of the auditorium and the whitewashed underside of the dome illuminated in the glow of golden light.  Behind the curtain is the largest screen of it’s kind, an 85 foot wide curved behemoth that brings epic grandeur to anything that screens on it.  It opened to the world with the premiere of Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and has since hosted everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to Apocalypse Now (1979) to several Star Wars and Titanic (1997).  In 2002, property developer Decurion added onto the Cinerama dome by opening a large multiplex called the Arclight behind it.  The Arclight and Cinerama Dome combined became a favorite for movie fans across Los Angeles, often rated at the top of all the movie theaters in the city.  But, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it brought an abrupt end to the Arclight as a Hollywood fixture.  The operators of the Arclight, Pacific Theaters, did not survive the lockdown and filed for bankruptcy in April of 2021.  Fans of the theater were devastated and were concerned for the future of the property.  The Dome itself is a protected landmark, but the Arclight structure behind it is not, and people were worried a new owner would end up gutting the property.  Thankfully, Decurion managed to maintain ownership of the Arclight property even after selling off all the other Pacific Theater assets, and moves are being made to re-open the theaters again soon as a re-christened Cinerama Hollywood.  One hopes that nothing other than the name will change, as the Arclight and the Cinerama Dome were the best in the business to begin with.  When it finally, hopefully, re-opens, it is an essential theatrical experience that cannot be missed.  Quite simply, this theater is the most unique theatrical experience of them all in Hollywood, and the place where the movies go to be the grandest they can be.

1.

THE TCL CHINESE THEATER

Location: Hollywood, Hollywood Blvd.

The crown jewel of Hollywood.  The Chinese Theater is not just the most famous movie theater in Hollywood, or Los Angeles, or the United States, but probably the world entire.  It’s striking façade is just as iconic as the Hollywood Sign or the Griffith Observatory as a landmark in the Los Angeles region.  Upon opening in 1927, it took the crown of the King of Hollywood Movie Palaces and has never relinquished the crown since in almost 100 years.  Founded by Sid Grauman, who also owned the Egyptian and El Capitan theaters for a time in the early days of Hollywood, the Chinese Theater is an integral part of the history of Hollywood.  This is especially true thanks to the tradition that still remains present in it’s courtyard.  It’s said that when silent movie actress Norma Talmadge accidently got her heeled shoe stuck in wet cement in the new theater’s courtyard in 1927, it inspired Sid Grauman to start a tradition of movie stars leaving hand and shoe prints in cement as a permanent tourist attraction to bring more people to the theater.  The tradition continues to this day, with footprints of all eras mixed in across the courtyard of the theater, from John Wayne to Judy Garland, to even Star War’s C-3PO.  Inside, the Chinese inspired décor continues, leading to a gargantuan, ornate auditorium.  The theater was extensively remodeled in 2013, sinking the seating floor several floors down in order to give the venue stadium style seating while still maintaining the ornate walls and ceiling of the original theater.  The deeper floor to ceiling depth also allowed the Chinese to be converted into an IMAX theater, with a taller screen size that’s capable of supporting the large format.  To this day, the Chinese Theater is the centerpiece of activity in Hollywood.  No other landmark is more visited or photographed.  Special events still are present there like movie premieres and also film festivals, like the Turner Classic Movies one that I attend every year.  Certainly, no trip to Hollywood is complete without at least seeing the Chinese Theater.  It is an icon in every way, and the pinnacle of the Hollywood movie palace experience.

There is no doubt that Hollywood is not just the heart of the movie industry, but also the best place to watch movies in a theatrical setting as well.  It is home to the best and most famous movie theaters in the world, and offers both locals and visitors the best chance of feeling connected more personally to the movies as well.  These are the theaters that the movie stars and filmmakers call home as well.  In the case of the New Beverly, Lumiere Music Hall and Vista Theaters, it is indeed the ambitious public display of dedicated fans of the cinematic experience that keep these places running.  I’m sure that there are plenty of movie palaces across the country that are as well preserved and well maintained and lovingly operated as those found in Hollywood.  But there is no place in the world where you’ll find so many of these theaters so closely concentrated in one place.  And I’m just spotlighting the ones in the vicinity of Hollywood, as there are plenty more scattered throughout the Southland, including in Downtown LA as well as communities like Santa Monica and Pasadena, each with their own storied histories.  I have certainly spotlighted the major landmarks like the Chinese and the Cinerama Dome, but I also wanted Nuart and the Vista to get their due respect as well, as they are also a crucial part of the movie theater centered history of Hollywood.  Living near Hollywood as I have for the last decade, I have been privileged to visit each of these unique venues, both small and large.  They really tell you a story of what made Hollywood what it is today, showing how a lot of work went into making the theaters themselves part of the presentation.  You just don’t get the same kind of feeling watching a movie in a standardized multiplex, though it’s still preferable to watching a movie on the couch at home.  I do watch most of my movies at a multiplex, which themselves are grand in scale here in Los Angeles, but for special occasions, I will make an effort to see a film at the El Capitan or the Chinese, and hopefully again someday soon at the Cinerama Dome.  If there is a unique movie palace in your area, or a small boutique arts cinema, please support them, because they don’t all have the historical protections that the ones here in Hollywood have.  One-of-a-kind cinemas are something worth protecting, and the glory of the ones found here in Hollywood are great examples of what makes movie theaters so special to all of us.

Top Ten Moments from Pixar Animation… So Far

Nearly 40 years ago, a small little software start-up in Silicon Valley named Pixar began experimenting with graphic design using computers to create three dimensional imagery.  While they were not the first to use computers to create graphics, they were however the first to apply the technology to the art of animation.  Moving beyond just simple shapes and patterns, Pixar began to design images that could move and even have personality.  This was proven especially well in the 1986 short Luxo Jr., where they took a computer modeled digital puppet of a desk lamp (an ordinarily inanimate object) and made it not only come to life, but with personality as well.  Luxo Jr., that simple test run of Pixar’s animation capabilities has gone on to become the mascot of one of the most revered and groundbreaking studios in animation ever since.  With their award winning and acclaimed shorts gaining increasing attention in the field of animation, Pixar took on some high profile investors to help boost them even further, including big names like George Lucas and Steve Jobs.  Eventually, their ambitions rose leading them to take on the biggest challenge yet; to create a feature length computer animated film.  It’s not at all surprising that the ones who helped Pixar achieve that dream was Disney Animation.  Disney themselves had undertaken the same risks that Pixar did in it’s early days, and given that Disney has long been a forward thinking studio when it comes to emerging technology, it was particularly wise of them to bring Pixar into the fold before they would grow into a competitor.  While Disney has still maintained their own in house animation studio, they have still managed to let Pixar grow alongside it, seeing it become one of the most beloved brands in all of animation history.  In 1995, the two studios launched the groundbreaking film Toy Story, changing the face of animation forever, and today, Pixar reaches a major milestone with their 25th feature film.

Turning Red makes it’s debut this week on Disney+, an unfortunately limited release affected by Disney’s post pandemic strategy of releases.  It’s too bad that the occasion of Pixar’s 25th film is being platformed in a way that is not ideal for the best possible experience.  This is also the third film in a row from Pixar to be debuting on streaming instead of in theaters, after Soul (2020) and Luca (2021), which leads many to wonder if Disney is intentionally mistreating their Pixar brand in favor of their own, as both Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) and Encanto (2021) did get theatrical releases.  Some would argue that a streaming release is more beneficial in this day and age, but there’s still debate over that.  Unfortunately, for many who prefer the theatrical experience, they are being robbed of a choice and it seems like Pixar is being singled out as the fall guy here for Disney’s internal corporate shuffling.  But, enough of my soap box ranting.  It is indeed a huge milestone to make for Pixar animation, and it’s worth looking back on all the things that has made Pixar the beloved studio that it is today.  What really has defined Pixar the most over the years is their incredible mastery over story.  Each Pixar to be sure is visually daring and groundbreaking, but it’s the emotional connection that they make with audiences that has endeared them to multiple generations.  They have managed to make us laugh out load one minute and then be brought to tears in the next.  It’s not surprising that so much effort is put into the story development first before each of their movies goes into animation, because they know that story is the heartbeat of their brand.  And what they really excel at are creating what we know as a Pixar moment; one that tears at our hearts or warms it pure joy and sometimes awe.  Below, I have selected what I think are the most iconic and memorable moments from the first 25 films in the Pixar canon.  Only the main lineup of full length movies here, so no shorts or spin-offs.  And these aren’t particularly all the saddest moments or the funniest, but moments that I think helped to define Pixar as the kings and queens of animation that they are today.  So, without further ado, let’s look at the best moments from Pixar Animation…so far.

10.

THE DOOR VAULT from MONSTERS INC. (2001)

By the time that Monsters Inc. came around, Pixar had already established itself as a studio that excelled at world building.  They showed us the lives of toys that come to life when the humans are not watching in Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999), and they also showed us the world from the perspective of the insect world with A Bug’s Life (1998).  With Monsters Inc., they showed us an alternate world where monsters lived the same kind of lives as ordinary humans.  Up until then, this kind of world building was really unique in animation, utilizing an almost unprecedented amount of detail in the backgrounds to subtly suggest how the world of the monsters is both familiar and alien at the same time.  But, Pixar was not just satisfied in making their world of the monsters feel plausible and lived in.  They wanted to really show what they were capable of with the advances they had made in their medium.  One of the most interesting concepts they created in the film was the idea of trans-dimensional doors that allow the monsters to enter the world of humans.  These doors simply are modular door frames that can be carried of once it’s usefulness is complete, which then raised the question for the filmmakers; where do those doors go.  The answer was a cavernous vault with crisscrossing rails to transport the doors on an assembly line.  It’s here that the filmmakers also wisely chose to set the climax of their story, giving the movie an extra bit of epic grandeur.  As we see Mike and Sulley and lil’ Boo fly across this massive repository, it showed just how far Pixar had some in such a short time.  Here they were able to blow us a way with creating an environment on a scale unseen before with literally thousands of moving parts all being showed at once.  In addition, it also gives the climax of the movie a roller coaster style adrenaline rush as the characters fly from door to door, and even through the dimensions between.  It’s a finale that set the bar high and really took Pixar to a whole different level.

9.

DORY SPEAKING WHALE from FINDING NEMO (2003)

We go from one of Pixar’s grandest moments to one of it’s sillier, but no less memorable, moments.  Finding Nemo is a film built around a whirlwind of emotions, ranging from the tragic opening scene, to the harrowing escape from a swarm of jellyfish, to the hilarious attempts at escaping from a fish tank.  But, where most of the love for this film comes from is the brilliant comedic chemistry of it’s two leads; the neurotic clownfish father Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and the absent-minded but good natured Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres).  Most of the film’s adventures are built around the situations that this unlikely pair finds themselves in, and the comedy is derived from their Abbott and Costello like banter.  While there are many hilarious moments to speak of, the movie hits a high point with the hilarious moment that Dory tries to demonstrate her ability to speak whale, which she may or may not really have.  While Ellen Degeneres’ vocal performance here is without a doubt hilarious, fearlessly diving into what whale speak might sound like with low pitch droning, it’s the fact that the movie gives the time to let this bit play out that makes it all the funnier.  Most animated movies would hesitate devoting such a lengthy amount of their runtime to something like the vaudeville routine here between Dory and Marlin, but the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, wisely lets his two veteran comics deliver in that moment and plays the hilarity out to the fullest, allowing it to get funnier the longer it goes on.  It also still fits as part of the progression of the story, because the scene also builds tension as a whale slowly approaches them from behind and ends up catching them in it’s expansive mouth; which we soon learn was to help them safely to their destination.  It’s a scene that really demonstrates Pixar’s confidence in storytelling, and knowing exactly to let a good funny scene breath to full life.

8.

BING BONG’S SACRIFICE from INSIDE OUT (2015)

Now we go from one of Pixar’s funniest moments to one of it’s most heartbreaking.  Seems fitting that a movie where the main characters are the embodiments of our inner emotions would also be an emotional roller coaster itself.  Taking place mostly in the mind of a twelve year old girl named Riley, we follow her emotions as they take a journey through all of it’s inner workings in order to return to the central headquarters and set things back in motion after it’s all gone haywire.  The emotions taking that journey in particular are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith); polar opposites to be sure.  On their road, they run into Riley’s semi-forgotten imaginary friend named Bing Bong (voiced by Pixar regular and favorite Richard Kind).  Now Bing Bong is certainly a character meant to give the movie another comical foil to bring laughter to the audience.  What the movie manages to remarkably do is garner an emotional attachment to the character as well.  This becomes especially clear at a point in the story where both he and Joy fall into a part of the Riley’s mind where memories go to be forgotten forever, with no chance of escape.  Not only are they stuck there, but Bing Bong finds that he is slowly starting to fade being in that dark abyss as well.  The duo do manage to find an escape aboard a rocket powered red wagon, but they can’t both make it out together.  Seeing the stakes at play, Bing Bing bails out, allowing Joy to escape.  Because of this, Bing Bong is doomed to be forgotten and he fades from existence before our eyes, but not before advising Joy to take Riley “to the moon” for him.  In that moment right there, Pixar managed to do something that you’d never think possible; to shed a tear for a character named Bing Bong, an elephant trunked creature made of cotton candy that cries candy.  But that just shows how good Pixar is at making us care about the stories they tell and the characters they bring to life, no matter how silly they are.

7.

WALL-E AND EVE’S STARLIGHT DANCE from WALL-E (2008)

Wall-E may very well be the most ambitious movie in the Pixar canon, at least conceptually.  Taking place in the far future where humanity has left the Earth behind as an unlivable trash heap, we are introduced to a lone trash collecting robot that has lived alone for centuries on the planet and over time has developed a personality of his own.  Once he meets a probe robot named Eve who has ventured to Earth in search of sustainable plant life (a sign that Earth’s toxicity is waning and capable of supporting human activity again) Wall-E begins an adventure that leads him out into the cosmos.  Along the way, he also develops a kinship with Eve, which blossoms into deep affection between the two.  This highly unusual but nevertheless endearing love story hits a high point after Wall-E finds himself floating in space, propelled by a fire extinguisher.  Eve, who is self-propelled, playfully follows beside him, and their gliding through space turns into an elegant dance around the massive spaceship.  Made even more romantic by the Thomas Newman score, this is one of the most elegantly beautiful sequences ever put in any animated film, let alone Pixar.  And it’s all the more remarkable because these are characters that are limited in expression and voice, and yet full of personality.  There’s an especially hilarious and heartwarming moment when Eve and Wall-E touch each other’s heads and a little spark slashes; the robot equivalent of a kiss.  Wall-E’s lucid reaction afterwards is especially endearing.  Who knew that simple robots could create one of the most romantic couples in animation history?  Couple this with outer worldly animation and you’ve got the makings of one of Pixar’s most elegantly sublime moments.

6.

THE 100 MILE DASH from THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

When Pixar brought in legendary animation director Brad Bird into their stable, they knew he would bring something bold and cutting edge to their next project.  The Iron Giant auteur took his long in development idea of a family of super heroes and crafted Pixar’s most groundbreaking film yet.  You can tell that Pixar took a great leap forward in terms of staging with The Incredibles; with the scale of action going much further than we’ve seen before in animation.  Bird stages his scenes like an action movie in the vein of a Mission: Impossible film (something that would also be in Brad Bird’s future), but with the boundless potential that computer animation can allow him.  This is especially shown off to it’s extreme in the sequence involving the super speedster Dash and his harrowing escape from the villain’s henchmen.  Dash, the 10 year old middle child of the super powered Parr family, has spent much of the film being held back by his concerned mother, who has kept him from running at his fullest speed in order to help conceal their identity.  But, as the family attempts to infiltrate the villain’s lair in order to save the father, Mr. Incredible, the limits are gone, and we finally see just how fast Dash can run.  The scene is an absolute tour de force of animation, with the medium reaching an epic scale unlike anything seen before.  And what is especially great is how Brad Bird builds the momentum of the action in the scene, really amping up the excitement for the viewer.  There’s also some great subtle character moments in there as well, like the look of joy on Dash’s face when he realizes he can run on water for the first time.  This is an especially good scene to show off as a tech demo for computer animation, because of all the moving parts involved.  And what is especially special about this scene was that it showed that computer animation could indeed be as dynamic as anything live action could make, and even more so.  For a movie that already had plenty of great action set pieces, this is one that really raised the bar high for what animation could do, and it still is a thrilling ride all these years later.

5.

EGO’S EPIPHANY from RATATOUILLE (2007)

What other studio out there would dare to have the climax of their movie hinge on the preparation and eating of a meal in a fancy restaurant.  Once again from the mind of Brad Bird, the story of a rat named Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) who wants to become a gourmet chef in Paris naturally would end on an unconventional note.  But it’s a moment that so perfectly encapsulates the story that they want to tell.  Ratatouille is a story about artistic pursuit, and not letting one’s background be an obstacle towards creating authentic moments of genius.  For much of the movie, there has been this looming threat of a food critic named Anton Ego (voiced marvelously by the legendary Peter O’Toole), whose become this ruthless gatekeeper over the standard of quality dining in the city of Paris.  Impressing him seems like an almost insurmountable challenge, and it’s made even more harrowing when the cook in question is a rat.  But in a moment that is just pure brilliance, Remy the rat cooks up the titular dish, which his fellow cooks are uncertain about because Ratatouille is considered a peasant dish in French circles.  But, with a confidence in his abilities, he send the dish to Ego’s table.  Ego takes one bite and the movie suddenly flashes us back to Ego’s childhood, where we see his mother cheer him up by cooking the same meal.  It then brings us right back to present day with Ego looking gobsmacked.  It’s hilarious, but it also perfectly brings the movie full circle.  The dour critic has his guard taken down because he finally found a meal that reminds him of why he loves food in the first place.  It’s the way that Brad Bird reveals all this information in just a few quick seconds that makes this moment so resonant.  We’ve all had that moment that touched our souls and made us fall in love with something, and it’s hilarious to see it so sharply realized in a quick cut-away gag.  Only Pixar would end their movie on that kind of note, and it’s a testament to their capabilities as storytellers.

4.

JESSIE’S STORY from TOY STORY 2 (1999)

One of the other great talents of the story teams at Pixar is their ability to tell so much story within a brief amount of time, even in the span of one musical number.  This was especially well demonstrated in their third film; the sequel to their first feature Toy Story.  In Toy Story 2, the pull-sting cowboy doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) meets for the first time other toys that were part of the same line of merchandise that he came from.  One of them is a perky, yodeling cowgirl named Jessie (voiced with great zeal by Joan Cusack).  While Jessie is full of life and spunk, we do see a lot of pain in her character as well, which we soon learn more about when she finally reveals to Woody where she came from.  The movie shifts to a backstory told entirely through song (written by Randy Newman, and performed by Sarah McLaughlin) where we see the events of Jessie’s life played out in montage.  We see her living a happy life as she’s played with by her owner; a little girl named Emily.  Eventually Emily grows up, and forgets about Jessie, who spends years alone under the bed, un-played with.  Then, when Emily is in adulthood she finds Jessie, and the little doll briefly finds happiness again, thinking that she’s been reunited with her beloved companion.  But, to her great disappointment, she soon learns that she’s being dropped off to a second hand donation box, abandoned by the one she thought would love her forever.  In one somber song sequence, Toy Story 2 gives us a harrowing tragic story that could’ve stood on it’s own.  It works brilliantly as a moment in this film because it echoes the anxieties that Woody himself was having in that moment, worried that his owner Andy would soon leave him behind too.  This moment is definitely a significant one in Pixar history because it’s arguably their first tear-jerking moment; something that they would go on to create many more of.  Of course, Pixar wouldn’t have had the confidence to continue making these emotional, heart-string tugging moments in their films had this one not landed so well in the first place.  Pixar certainly knows how to deliver a good cry in their movies, and it’s with Jessie’s emotional journey that we saw them earn that moment for the first time.

3.

REMEMBER ME from COCO (2017)

Another moment that gave audiences a good cry in the theater, Pixar’s Coco hits it’s most emotional note at the climax of it’s story.  For most of it’s run time, Coco had been an imaginative romp through a world reflective of the traditions of the holiday Dia de Los Muertos, celebrated throughout the nation of Mexico and many other Latin American countries.  Through the brilliant imaginations of the artists at Pixar, we see the Land of the Dead as this vibrant society, where ancestral souls live on, embodied as colorful skeletal versions of their past selves.  We follow along with a young boy named Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), who must find his way back to the living after having a curse placed on him.  Along the way, he meets a vagabond soul named Hector (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), and learns that if Hector doesn’t find a way to get his long lost daughter to remember him, he will fade from the land of the dead into oblivion, in what is called the Final Death.  Through a variety of circumstances, Miguel soon learns that Hector’s daughter is actually his great grandma Coco, who’s in the final stages of dementia.  Miguel, knowing full well how much it matters to make Coco remember, returns home with a renewed sense of setting things right in his family.  Up until this point, Miguel was acting in his own self interest in pursuing his dream to become a famous musician.  But in the film’s climax, he sings not for himself but for his Mama Coco, to bring her back from the abyss and in turn help keep his ancestor Hector from fading away completely.  It’s an emotional gut punch, especially for those with loved ones who have been lost to Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Seeing the life come back into Coco’s eyes when Miguel sings to her is such a powerful moment, with a song that is perfectly titled “Remember Me.”  Who knew a song sung between an old lady and a young boy would hit such an emotional wallop, but that’s what makes this one in Coco such great scene and one of the absolute high points of Pixar’s film legacy.

2.

THE TOYS ARE ALIVE from TOY STORY (1995)

It wouldn’t be right to make a list of the greatest Pixar moments and not mention the movie that started it all.  When Toy Story first came out in theaters, there was little certainty that it could actually work.  At that time, hand drawn animation from the likes of Disney was dominating the marketplace, especially after the success of The Lion King (1994) just the year before.  Computer animation was still a novelty, and also pretty primitive.  Sure, Jurassic Park (1993) proved that you could make computer animation appear life-like, but an entirely animated world was something altogether unproven.  But like Walt Disney had done with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) all those years ago, the artists at Pixar set out to prove the naysayers wrong and to do so, they put all their focus on getting the story right first and foremost.  When you look back on Toy Story today, there are certainly things about it that really don’t date well, like the environmental textures and primitive human models that look very Barbie doll-like compared to what we have now.  But, what does still work very well is the amount of personality that was put into the animation of the main toy characters.  Woody and Buzz Lightyear still feel like fully fleshed out characters even by today’s standards, and while later Toy Story movies have refined the character models with better detail over the years, they still reflect the rock solid blueprint set by the original film.  If there really was anything that made Pixar the powerhouse that they are today, it’s that first glorious moment when we see the toys come to life for the first time.  It’s in that moment that Pixar announced itself to the world and showed that they could indeed make the impossible possible at their studio.  That’s something that has carried them along with each subsequent film thereafter; the belief that they can breath life into these pixels on a computer screen and make us care for them.  Like Disney before them, Pixar showed that their medium was just as cinematically relevant as any other, and it all it started with is making us believe that toys can come to life and that their stories could make us laugh and cry too.

1.

MARRIED LIFE from UP (2009)

While Toy Story broke new ground and movies like Coco, Inside Out, and Toy Story 2 could bring us to tears, the most perfect display of everything that Pixar excels at encapsulated in one sequence is found in the movie Up; a simple story about an old man and his journey aboard a balloon suspended house.  The story of Carl Fredrickson (voiced by the late great Ed Asner) is an imaginative romp taking us to the skies and into the otherworldly wilds of the South American tepui mountaintops.  But, what most people remember the most about Up is not the adventure itself, but the story that leads up to the main events.  In the movie’s prologue, we see young Carl meet a spunky little girl named Ellie.  The two make a quick bond, and then the movie cuts ahead to their wedding day.  From there, Carl and Ellie’s adult lives are played out in a montage, set to the incredible Oscar-winning score of Michael Giacchino.  We are shown the married life of these two soulmates in a scant six minutes, and yet their story is in itself a full three act narrative with the same highs and lows of a full length feature.  We see the joy of starting a life together, the lows of learning of their infertility, the dreams of their hope to one day going on an adventure of a lifetime as well as the many speedbumps that prolong that dream.  It’s all perfectly displayed with not a single spoken word.  Director Pete Doctor includes some brilliant touches to help show the passage of time, like the many different times that Ellie adjusts Carl’s tie, that helps to make the montage flow gracefully along.  And then of course comes the gut punch when time catches up to the couple and Ellie’s life passes at the close of the montage.  In a brilliantly staged sequence like this, we see everything Pixar has perfected as cinematic storytellers, and remarkably this is how they chose to start the movie.  Thankfully the rest of the film doesn’t waste let down the high bar set by this emotional opening.  When you can tell a whole life’s story in a short little montage, and have the audience still feel invested and emotionally wrecked by the end, you know you’ve hit a very high standard as storytellers.  This scene alone is already studied in film schools as a demonstration of perfect brevity in storytelling and montage filmmaking.  And from the moment it first premiered, this became the high water mark that every emotionally resonant moment to come from Pixar has been judged against; some meet the challenge (Coco) others fall way short (Brave).  There’s no doubt that when Pixar can break your heart with a short story about a happy marriage from beginning to end in a montage shorter than the end credits, it’s a sign of them coming to the full peak of their cinematic possibilities.

So, there you have my choices for the greatest moments in Pixar’s first 25 feature films.  You’ll notice that the pattern of the list highlights Pixar’s uncanny ability to bring their audience to tears.  I don’t think that their plan is to upset their audiences.  The fact that most of us end up crying at their movies is because they are just so good at making us care about their characters and their stories; and some of the best stories out there often involve a little bit of heartbreak.  That’s definitely true of the moments from Up, Inside Out, Toy Story 2 and a few more that I didn’t include on this list.  But there’s also the triumphant moments that hit us very hard as well.  Ratatouille’s triumphant breaking down of Ego’s cynical shell for example, or Woody and Buzz falling from the sky with “style,” in Toy Story, or even just a sweet little button to end the movie on like Sully reuniting with Boo at the end of Monsters Inc.  What I especially like about Pixar is that they don’t pander to their audience; and when they do, it’s often from their worst films (the Cars franchise).  I like how their stories are always challenging their audience to think, and they often leave us guessing how things will turn up in the end.  That’s why so few of their films are binary, good vs. evil narratives.  Somethings the obstacle that stands in the characters way are their own flaws, which they overcome through their journey.  Marlin learns to not be so over-protective in Finding Nemo; Lightning McQueen learns that you can be the better man by not winning the race in Cars (2006); Joy learns that sometimes you need a good cry in order to feel happy again in Inside Out.  Pixar has mastered the ability to tell complex stories in a way that doesn’t talk down to it’s audience, no matter what age they are.  That’s why they have become the vanguard of animation over the last four decades, and will likely continue to be in the years ahead.  My hope is that their parent company Disney learns that these movies should be shared on the big screen alongside their presence on streaming.  These are films that become even more magical when experienced with a whole audience of people.  As shown here, they are some of the greatest storytellers in cinema today, and here’s hoping the next 25 movies stand just as strong as the first.

Top Ten Movies of 2021

From where the year 2021 started to where we are now is in many ways more of the same, but in other ways it was also a big change.  This is certainly something that has been felt at the movies.  When the year began for me, I was continuing the same pattern of film going that I had spent most of 2020 doing; mainly finding open theaters where I could.  Here in Los Angeles, movie theaters remained closed for the first two months, and it was also the case statewide, so even driving to a movie theater on a day trip was impossible.  All I had were the local drive-ins, which is where I went on almost a weekly basis to catch the last minute Oscar films that were slowly being rolled out, even in the wake of the pandemic.  Then, finally, after a full year of closure, my local area movie theaters reopened in early March 2021.  And since then, I’ve been making up for lost time like crazy.  Thankfully my AMC A-List membership is still valid, and I made good use of it all year long.  It took a while for things to actually look like normal again at the movie theaters, as many of the bigger films were holding off until the Summer, but once they did start coming, it was a deluge.  2021 was in fact a record breaking year for me as a movie-goer, as I saw more movies in a theater this year than I have in any year prior; which is quite remarkable when you consider this is coming right after a year long pandemic lockdown.  I think it’s probably due to my enthusiasm for being back in a theater setting, and also the fact that the theatrical schedule was very jam packed this year.  Not only were we getting the movies planned originally for 2021, but we were also getting all the exiles from 2020 that had found a new home on the schedule this year.  Suffice to say, I had a lot of movies to go through in order to make my end of the year list here.  It’s quite a year when filmmakers that I adore like Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, James Gunn, Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright all had excellent movies this year and still didn’t make my list.  It’s just shows that this was a year full of riches, but in many ways, it was the experience of being back in movie theaters that made 2021 feel so rewarding.

Here are a few of the movies that I found noteworthy, but fell just outside my top ten: Annette, Benedetta, The Card Counter, Drive My Car, Don’t Look Up, The Father, The French Dispatch, The Green Knight, In the Heights, Judas and the Black Messiah, Last Night in Soho, Nightmare Alley, No Time to Die, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Suicide Squad, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and West Side Story (2021).  And with that, let’s take a look at the movies that I believe were the Top Ten of 2021:

10.

RED ROCKET

Directed by Sean Baker

The films of Sean Baker thus far have carried a consistent theme up to now.  He seems to be attracted to characters that live on the fringes of paradise, showing the underbelly of American society while also at the same time finding the beauty in those small stories that the rest of us often look the other way from.  In Tangerine (2015), we follow the story of Transgender hookers making it through a hard night on the outskirts of Hollywood.  In The Florida Project (2017), we follow the story of a little girl and her messed up mom living in a slum just beyond the boundaries of Walt Disney World in Florida.  With Red Rocket (2021), Baker turns his sights to the misfit denizens of Texas City, Texas; a tiny oil-refinery town that most people would drive right past and not stay a second longer.  Like those two other films, Sean Baker brilliantly brings you into this often ignored world with his authentic American neo-realism, making you forget that you are watching a movie and instead makes you feel like you’re ease-dropping.  And that at times can become uncomfortable, but still entirely fascinating.  What really carries this movie through is an unforgettable performance from a revelatory Simon Rex, playing a washed up porn actor trying to worm his way back into his past life.  Rex manages to walk that tight rope between making his huckster character thoroughly repulsive while at the fascinating to watch.  The movie also works a subtle political allegory into the story of Rex’s Mikey Saber, having the film take place during the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, and drawing parallels between the dual sleazy con men; obviously one at a much smaller scale.  At the same time, Baker creates this remarkably charming pastoral of Americana on the fringes, casting his film with bright colorful sunshine and vibrant colors.  And it also makes surprising thematic use of N’Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” as a through line in the story.  Another strong American parable from one of our quietly subtle master directors.

9.

THE LAST DUEL

Directed by Ridley Scott

2021 proved to be a surprisingly strong year for films about medieval times.  Some of that had to do with movies that were holdovers from 2020, but it was still a year of riches for the sub-genre.  We got the surreal The Green Knight (2021) from director David Lowry, which turned the classic poem into a surreal work of art.  Paul Verhoeven tapped back into his sensationalist provocative style with his film Benedetta (2021), which was about lesbian nuns in a medieval French convent, one of whom also lusts for Jesus.  And then the year closed out with Joel Coen (flying solo this time without his brother and longtime filmmaking partner Ethan) reimagining The Tragedy of Macbeth in an abstract, monochromatic art film.  All were interesting in their own way, but I feel like the one that stood out the most was the extravagant drama put together by the always bigger than life Ridley Scott.  The Last Duel has all the pagentry and epic scope you’d expect from the man who made Gladiator (2000), but there is surprisingly a lot more to this movie than production design.  It is also a provocative examination of justice with regards to the aftermath of a sexual assault.  Scott breaks from a conventional narrative structure and tells the story of a French noblewoman who broke her silence to accuse her rapist publicly and hold him accountable through three different points of view.  Borrowing from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), The Last Duel shows us the same story three time, but each one from a different perspective (the lady, the man who raped her, and the lady’s husband).  Each story offers up an interesting examination of what the truth really means, and it’s interesting how each character is viewed differently in each version.  Each of the film’s stars (Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and especially Jodie Comer) magnificently capture the different subtleties of character, while still keeping the through line interesting.  The movie also marks the first screenwriting collaboration between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also has a juicy supporting role) since Good Will Hunting (1997), with contribution from Nicole Holofcener as well.  It’s a remarkably strong statement of a film for the #MeToo moment in our society, and it shows that even into his eighties, Ridley Scott can still deliver a film that is both epic and provocative at the same time.

8.

NINE DAYS

Directed by Edson Oda

Going from a big movie to a very small one, but still one with very big ideas.  I was probably one of only a handful of people who saw this movie during it’s brief run in theaters last summer, but I’m absolutely glad I did, because it became this unexpected discovery.  This small indie, which was picked up at Sundance in 2020 right before the advent of Covid, had probably the most original story premise that I saw all year.  It’s about a bureaucrat (played by Winston Duke) living in a stage of pre-life, and his job is to select from a group of a dozen candidates a person who will get to live.  All the others he doesn’t chose will cease to exist entirely.  And he must do so in the titular nine days.  It kind of treads the same ground as Pixar’s Soul (2020), but does so in a very stripped down and even more emotionally weighty way.  The focus is not on the potential souls waiting to be chosen for life.  It’s on the person who has to carefully make that decision.  It’s a real introspective film in the best possible way.  The movie asks us what the purpose of living is meant to be; are we using the time given to us to it’s fullest potential.  The movie’s most heartwarming moments come when our main character has to let each of the unselected souls go, but not before granting them one wish before they disappear.  The way he and his assistant (played by Benedict Wong) put together these wishes are especially imaginative and touching.  The movie also features some strong performances from the various and different candidates, including Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, and Zazie Beetz.  Beetz’s character is an especially interesting wild card who definitely makes the most of her nine days and even makes Duke’s bureaucrat reconsider his own outlook on life.  I love the little world-building that this movie undertakes, making this fantastical concept feel believable while at the same time feeling intimate in that kind of indie film way.  It’s a movie that really has a character all it’s own, and manages to grasp big concepts in a way that feels natural to it’s small scope.  Trust me, it’s a movie well worth seeking out and getting lost in.  It might even make you look at the world and your own place in it a very different way, and hopefully show you how much life and the time we spend should be valued.

7.

LICORICE PIZZA

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

The forever daring P.T. Anderson returns to his San Fernando Valley roots with this new, personal ode to the Los Angeles of his youth.  It’s definitely a welcome departure from Anderson’s recent slate of heavier themed films like There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), and Phantom Thread (2017), and is more akin to his earlier work like Boogie Nights (1997) and especially Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  It also sees him returning to an episodic narrative as well like Magnolia (1999), except with a through line following an unconventional love story.  At the center is our destined couple, one a brash young child actor named Gary (played by Cooper Hoffman) whose hustling his way to his next big idea, and the other a dazed and confused young woman whose almost 10 years his senior named Alana (played by Alana Haim) who he has somehow has managed to coax into tagging along on his adventures.  And from there, Anderson takes us on an often comical journey through a bygone era in the Southland.  The different ups and downs of their relationship helps to fuel the film’s most memorable moments, and the movie offers a very comical look at youth in a community driven by opportunity.  Like most of Anderson’s movies, he puts an incredible amount of work into crafting a look and feel of the period in which his movies are set, and Licorice Pizza feels especially authentic.  From the use of time capsule locations, to the period costuming, to the perfectly chosen needle drops, this is a movie that really transports you back to 1970’s Los Angeles.  And being a San Fernando Valley resident, it’s especially rewarding to see places I’m familiar with show up in this movie.  Both Hoffman (taking over from his late father Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an Anderson leading man) and Alana Haim play their respective roles to perfection, especially the firecracker performance that Ms. Haim puts in.  The supporting cast of notable names are also on point as well, especially a scene-stealing Bradley Cooper as notorious Hollywood producer Jon Peters.  It’s definitely a movie personally connected to Anderson based on his own life, and it’s a joy seeing this loving tribute to the other side of Hollywood so lovingly brought to life.

6.

MINARI

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

As a consequence of the chaotic year that was 2020, most of the movies that ended up being the front-runners for that year’s Oscars were not widely available to view until later in the awards season, spilling over into Winter of 2021.  Because the Oscars were delayed until late April, it extended the qualifying runs up to the end of February last year, and that’s when I was able to see most of the 2020 Best Picture contenders.  And it was a few: The Father, One Night in Miami, Promising Young Woman, and the eventual victor, Nomadland.  And while many of them were excellent films, the one that stuck with me all through the rest of the year was this delightful little drama about a Korean immigrant family trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas.  Though I didn’t mind the Chloe Zhao directed juggernaut of Nomadland winning the top award at the Oscars, this was without a doubt my favorite pick of the bunch, and I feel it’s worth spotlighting again as this was technically a movie that was released widely this year and should be on a best of the year list.  I just adored this family drama, and it’s mainly due to the wonderful characters that are a part of it.  Steven Yeun is fantastic in his Oscar-nominated role as the downtrodden patriarch of the family, trying his best to set roots for his family in a part of the country where they definitely stick out.  But the real stand outs in the film are the little boy and his mischievous grandma.  Alan S. Kim perfectly captures this precocious young kid stuck in between two worlds as a first generation Korean American.  And Yuh-Jung Youn absolutely shines in the role that won her an Oscar as the often vulgar old dowager of the family.  Lee Isaac Chung, who based the movie largely on his own upbringing, injects this beautiful humanity into the film, and manages to avoid sensationalizing the underlying politics of the film.  It could’ve been so easy to mishandle this kind of immigrant story and inject too much of a broader worldview into it.  Instead, Chung keeps the story earthbound, and that helps the themes resonate all the more.  It’s a real testament that even with all the many films that I saw this year, this contender from last year’s Oscars that I saw all the way back in February managed to still make my best of the year list after so many months.  That’s a mark of a really good film.

5.

SPENCER

Directed by Pablo Larrain

Both a true life drama, and also a sort of anti-biopic, this interesting new film from the director of Jackie (2016) takes another historically fated iconic woman from recent history and creates an imagined look what a day in her life might have been like.  Showing a fateful Christmas weekend for the one time Princess of Wales, the movie creates this unforgettable and oftentimes harrowing examination into the personal life of Princess Diana.  While the movie is extraordinary in it’s lavish and yet earthbound visuals, what sets this film apart is the unconventional and outside the box casting of Kristen Stewart as Diana.  Going into this movie, Stewart would seem to be among the least likely choices to play such an iconic historic figure, and yet, she absolutely nails it in the end.  There are even some points where the resemblance is uncanny.  She get the voice right, the walk, and even the upward glance stare.  It’s without a doubt one of the best performances of the year (if not the best) and will almost assuredly net Kristen at least her first Oscar nomination.  But, even without that performance, the movie would have still been an excellent production overall.  I love the way that director Pablo Larrain uses very wide angle lenses to make the hallways of Sandringham Palace feel even more isolating for Diana.  There’s also this very interesting subtext throughout the movie, with Diana constantly being haunted by the spectral memory of Anne Boleyn, whose ultimate fate feels like an omen for Diana’s future, an idea which drives the current princess to some deep despair.  And yet, even through the sometimes oppressive gloom, the movie manages to surprise with moments of true joy, especially when Diana is with her two sons, William and Harry.  Even though we all know Diana’s full story, and almost every facet of her life has been examined throughout the media, this movie still manages to craft a story that shows a side of her as a character that we haven’t seen before, or at the very least never considered.  It also, despite all the gloom, manages to find a happy ending for this ultimately doomed figure, and even more surprisingly it involves KFC chicken.  One of the most surprisingly emotional character studies of the year.

4.

LUCA 

Directed by Enrico Casarosa

Tragically, because of the on-going effects of the pandemic, most people were unable to watch this movie the way it was intended; on a big screen (a practice that sadly is still affecting Pixar films).  But, whether on a big or small screen, this was one of the most entertaining and delightful films of the year.  Pixar again delivers with this charming coming-of-age tale of two young sea monsters hoping to make their dreams come true in the human world.  The movie of course makes the most of it’s “what if?” scenario, which has been a thing that the master filmmakers at Pixar have always excelled at.  But even by their own high standards, Luca is especially effecting and inspiring in it’s narrative.  The friendship at the heart of the story, between Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and his more adventurous companion Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Glazer), is what really drives the story to delightful ends.  The movie’s montages of them trying to emulate human activity, like riding a Vespa, and failing badly, are some of the film’s most charming moments.  At the same time, the movie also becomes surprisingly inspirational.  Whether it was intended this way or not, the movie works very well as an allegory for queer youth coming to terms with their identity and wanting to motivate the world around them to accept them for who they are.  Pixar may not have set out to make a movie like that to begin with, but they’re not opposed to that interpretation either and have in retrospect quietly given the idea their approval.  It is already being heralded within the LGBTQ community, so I think it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a future officially acknowledge queer themed movie.  Regardless, it’s another triumph for Pixar, with a genuinely charming story and imaginative visuals, which owe a bit of inspiration to the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  Hopefully, one day, this movie gets a big screen revival, but until then, for this year it’s another definite winner for Pixar Animation.

3.

PIG

Directed by Michael Sarnoski

I may be a bit biased on this one, because this is a film that both takes place and was shot in my home state of Oregon.  But even if it wasn’t, I still would’ve loved everything about this surprisingly emotional and unconventional film.  It’s also surprising that I’m finding myself putting a film starring Nicolas Cage into my top 3 for the year, but that’s where we’re at.  This is a remarkably well crafted and unpredictable movie that manages to balance humor, genuine pathos, and even a little bit of suspense into a brilliantly observed character study.  It’s also a bit of an art-house John Wick (2014) in that Nicolas Cage’s character is a man with a past whose layers are peeled back as the plot progresses.  It doesn’t turn violent like the Wick movies do, but it does do the same interesting trick of introducing it’s main character as one thing and over the course of the movie reveal him to have had a whole different kind of life before hand.  The movie even throws some wild card, subculture surprises at us, including an underground fight club made up of waiters and dishwashers.  Nicolas Cage delivers what may be his most nuanced performance ever, and certainly his best in a very long time.  I love the fact that even as he ends up getting more beat up and bloody as the movie goes on, he still commands respect and authority from the culinary world that he once inhabited.  It’s a movie that also finds the absurdity of the high end culinary world to be a especially potent target, but at the same time, it also gives us an appetizing look at the art of cuisine.  The film could have easily been derailed by a less subtle approach to it’s world-building, and thankfully the filmmakers keep this movie grounded and maintain it’s humanity.  Like the character that Nicolas Cage plays in the movie, there are so many layers of this film to unravel, and I’m sure many are going to end up finding a movie they didn’t expect to see going into this film.  Who knew a movie about a feral wild man of the forest trying to find his stolen truffle pig would garner up one of the year’s most rewarding cinematic experiences.

2.

DUNE

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A thankful return to the kind of provocative, big screen spectacle that we were sorely missing throughout the pandemic.  Denis Villeneuve had long wanted to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal Science Fiction epic novel to the big screen, and boy did he not waste his opportunity.  Surely, the David Lynch directed 1984 adaptation has it’s fans, but this is the movie that really does the writing of Frank Herbert justice.  Denis Villeneuve does for Dune what Peter Jackson did for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which is bring it to it’s fullest cinematic potential.  You can tell that Denis had been planning the shots in his head for years, maybe even decades prior.  There is an ambition of vision here that really helps to make the story leap off the page like never before.  Once thought to be an un-filmable book, as evidenced by the messy Lynch film, Villeneuve has managed to make all the bizarre and surreal elements of Herbert’s novel work on screen here.  Or at least half of the novel, as Warner Brothers made the short sighted decision to let Villeneuve break the story into two films, but did not plan to shot both back to back; a foolish decision in light of the movie opening in a challenging pandemic marketplace.  Thankfully, it did well enough to greenlight Part Two, but it seemed uncertain for a time.  The movie has some of the most amazing visuals seen all year; perfectly capturing the awe inspiring sights of the world of Arrakis.  The all star cast likewise lives up to the hype; with Timothee Chalamet leading the film perfectly in the difficult role of Paul Atredes.  Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Jason Mamoa are also stand outs.  More than anything, it’s seeing an ambitious cinematic treatment of an often mishandled source material done right that makes this film one of the years best.  And it makes me hopeful that studios will continue to treat these kinds of properties with respect instead of focusing on the marketability of these properties.  Hopefully, Dune does for science fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy on the silver screen.  More importantly, it showed that indeed there are some movies best savored on the biggest screen possible and that’s hopefully something that we’ll see more of, which will hopefully bring audiences back to the cinemas.

And now, my choice for the best movie of 2021 is…

1.

THE POWER OF THE DOG

Directed by Jane Campion

Jane Campion has not directed a feature film in over 12 years, but you wouldn’t know that after seeing this movie.  She steps back into feature filmmaking effortlessly with what is probably her most refined film yet, and certainly her best since her Oscar-winning The Piano (1993).  In this revisionist Western, she gives us an interesting examination into the nature of toxic masculinity.  Perfectly embodied through an incredible performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (probably his best work yet), we see a cowboy whose crafted this harsh masculine shell around himself to hide his own insecurities about his own identity, and this in turn make him a tyrannical presence in the lives of those around him, especially his put upon little brother (played by Jesse Plemons) and his new sister-in-law (played by Kirsten Dunst).  It’s only when he meets his new nephew-in-law (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who displays more feminine traits, that we seen the hard veneer start to crack around this character, which lead to some shocking confrontations along the way.  Of all the movies that I saw this year, none were as finely crafted from beginning to end as this was. Campion remarkably manages to substitute her native New Zealand for rural Montana, and you would never know the difference.  The movie is also perfectly edited, without an ounce of fat on the story at all.  It also features some truly memorable moments, like one of the most unnerving musical duets you will see in any movie.  The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is also one of the best of the year.  It’s just the movie that hit all the right notes for me this year, and even still offered up surprises that I wasn’t expecting at all.  It’s good to see Jane Campion continuing to mesh her provocative voice with these often sanctified genres.  Seeing her especially breaking down the mythic representation of a rugged cowboy and showing the dangers of masculinity without balance is a lesson that we especially need explored through cinema.  The film is a gorgeous, extremely well acted and shot ode to the Western genre that is not afraid to explain that the myths that were borne out of it are not something we should continue to idolize in modern society today.  A thorough and undisputed triumph.

So there you have my choices for the top ten films of 2021.  Of course, any examination of the best of the year is not complete without the counterpoint.  So, of course, I have my choices for the Bottom 5 of 2021 below.  Here’s a brief rundown of my least favorite movies of the year:

5. WAREWOLVES WITHIN – This uninteresting Edgar Wight-wannabe film from video game producer Ubisoft believes itself to be more clever than it really is.  Like I mentioned beforehand, the movies of Edgar Wright are far more witty and balanced as a mixture of comedy and horror.  This one just regurgitates a lot of obvious, low hanging fruit puns and sadly even descends into stereotypes of gay people and middle American rednecks.  You would think the bar would already be low for a movie based on a little known video game, but this one managed to find a way to sink even lower.

4. THE NIGHT HOUSE – Probably the single dullest movie that I saw all year.  What could have been an interesting twist on a haunted house storyline instead turns into a mediocre waste of talent.  I get the feeling that even the filmmakers didn’t know what the ultimate mystery was going to be either.  Is the house haunted by ghosts? Demons?  Is it all an elaborate hoax or just in the heroine’s head.  The movie’s frustratingly vague ending just seems to say that all the above are true, which shows that indeed nobody knew what this movie was supposed to be about.  It’s just spooky for spooky sake, and that in no way is scary.  Consider more effective scary movies from this year like A Quiet Place Part II or Malignant, and make a hard pass on this unsatisfying failure of a horror movie.

3. EARWIG & THE WITCH – This one is especially painful, because it comes from one of the greatest animation studios in the world; Japan based Studio Ghibli.  After becoming legends in the anime industry, this film marked their first ever foray into full computer animation.  And boy did it not work out.  There’s just something about the Studio Ghibli style that does not translate to 3D animation.  Couple this with a painfully mediocre and unimaginative story and one of the most insufferably annoying main characters ever as well.  The good news is that Studio Ghibli founder, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, is once again breaking his retirement and making another film, and it will thankfully be hand drawn, traditional animation.  Maybe Studio Ghibli can one day make 3D animation compatible with their house style, but man oh man was this experiment an absolute failure.

2. SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS – Another failed attempt to launch this franchise off the ground.  Instead of going for a full G.I. Joe team-up, this one decides to focus solely on one of the most iconic characters from the brand.  And yet, they found nothing interesting at all with the character to justify a full length movie.  It especially seems like a wasted opportunity for actor Henry Golding, whose headlining a film for the first time here.  The usually charismatic Crazy Rich Asians star just seems lost and unmotivated here.  Not to mention that for the majority of the movie, his character is selfish and narrowminded.  Why should we be rooting for him?  Some shoehorned G.I. Joe lore thrown into the mix can’t do much to elevate this movie beyond genre clichés.  If the G.I. Joe franchise was on life support before, this was the flatline that almost assuredly doomed it forever.

And the worst movie of 2021 is…

1. DEAR EVAN HANSEN – The past year gave us some great examples of how to adapt a musical for the big screen right.  From Warner Brother’s In the Heights, to Spielberg’s West Side Story, to the double whammy of Lin-Manuel Miranda productions Tick, Tick, Boom, and Encanto.  This misguided adaptation of an award winning stage musical is a text book example of how not to adapt a musical.  For one thing, the movie made the wrong choice in casting the original Broadway Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, to reprise his role.  Platt is now way too old to play the part of a teenager and his presence here acting alongside more age appropriate actors just gives this movie an overall creepy feeling.  And then there’s director Stephen Chbosky’s matter of fact style of filmmaking, which removes any and all spectacle that a movie musical should have.  And then there’s the inherent problem with the musical itself in that Evan Hansen is just a very hatable character to begin with.  What he does over the course of the story is pretty much emotional terrorism, injecting himself into the loving arms of a grieving family based on a lie, just to make himself feel better.  Maybe the earnestness plays better on a stage, but in this film adaptation, it just feels creepy and infuriating.  An absolute disaster of a musical adaptation, and pretty much the most overall worst experience I had at the movies this year; and that’s saying a lot given that a pandemic is still making movie-going a hassle.  Bye, Evan Hansen.

So, there you have my choices for the best and worst of 2021 at the movies.  It was honestly a harder list to put together this year, just because of the quantity of movies that I managed to see this year, as well as the fact that my viewing habits changed dramatically as movie theaters were finally starting to reopen after a year of closure. In some ways, I feel like this is going to be one of those years where I’ll be reassessing some of these movies again as the year go bye, as some films probably left a different impression on me just because of the times we are living in.  My hope is that going into 2022 that we see continued stability in the theater going experience, which already is being challenged as new variants are keeping the end of this pandemic from being in sight.  Already we are seeing movies being pushed back again, or being sent to streaming, all because uncertainty is on the rise again.  Thankfully, with vaccinations and masking becoming mandatory in most places, I think we’ll avoid another theater shut down like we saw in 2020.  It’s just going to take a while to get audiences back to feeling comfortable again for all types of movies; not just the super hero ones which seem to be doing alright.  I think by the summer we’ll see more normal box office again, and hopefully the pandemic will have seen it’s final massive wave by that point.  In any case, it’s good to have a contentious year like 2021 behind us now, and more importantly, it’s nice to see a calendar that no longer is packed with the remnants of all the pandemic exiles that were clogging up the system.  This will likely be one of the most normal looking years at the movies that we’ve seen in a long while, and my hope is that it offers up plenty of worthwhile entertainment, as well as a few surprises along the way.  Anyway, thank you for reading and have a great 2022 at the movies.

Top Ten Creepy Kids from Horror Movies

Scary movies, especially the great ones, strive to push the audience to a point of unease and dread while they watch; and in a way that fulfills the audience’s desire to be taken on that emotional ride while watching a movie.  There are many tricks to creating a sense of horror within a movie, from jump scares to creepy atmosphere to all kinds of unnatural phenomena that delves into our deepest fears.  But there is one particular element in horror movies that really captures the attention of an audience looking to be scared, and that’s a loss of innocence seen when something that is young and pure of soul is corrupted into something dark and sinister.  This is what we know as the creepy kid trope in horror movies.  Regular horror enacted or involving adults can be frightening enough, but when there is a child involved, the sense of dread is even more elevated.  There’s just something so unnerving about a child at the center of a horror story, whether the target of some malevolent force or embodying the force of evil itself within a story.  Sometimes even in not so scary stories, just the image of a child devoid of life and joy can have an unnerving effect on an audience.  And this is why horror movies that center around or include a haunted or demented child usually become some of the most popular.  Dark and foreboding kids just have this aura that elevates the level of unease in a story.  And we’ve seen creepy kids in movies used any number of ways; from ghosts, to zombies, to witches and vampires, to mutated monsters, to serial killers, to evil the Devil incarnate.  What follows are some of the best and most famous examples of the creepy kid trope used in horror movies, ranked through my own view of their notoriety and effectiveness as representatives of the trope used throughout horror movie history.   Just regular old creepy kids are not going to make it here on this list; these are characters that are central to delivering the effectively foreboding tone of their selective movies.  And some are of course among the most famous horror movie characters of all time.  Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead.  So, prepare yourself because we are about to talk about some of cinema’s creepiest kids that have ever been put on the big screen.

10.

ESTHER from ORPHAN (2009)

Played by Isabelle Fuhrman

One of the most noteworthy characteristics of a creepy child in horror movies is the revelation that they are not what they appear to be.  That’s definitely the case with the character of Esther from the movie Orphan, and then some.  Initially, when Esther is introduced, she appears to be a normal looking child with very old fashioned sensibilities.  Over the course of the movie, her cheerful childhood veneer is worn away to reveal a sinister side, which increasing grows more violent as the movie goes along.  Then towards the end of the movie, we get the big reveal that (spoilers) Esther is in fact not really a ten year old child, but is in fact a middle aged woman who has a rare condition that has stunted her growth and makes her appear to be a child.  With people seeing her as a child all the time, she has worked that to her advantage and scammed her way into multiple families as an orphan needing to be adopted, only for her to kill and steal her way out in order to repeat the cycle over again.  The unfortunate parents, played by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard who had already lost a child and wanted to adopt to fill that empty void, slowly realize the sinister nature of Esther and her dubious plans, and it leads to a very creepy and harrowing confrontation.  The fact that Esther is revealed not to be a real child is what prevents her from being further up on this list, but she is still noteworthy as a character because that twist is so well executed in the movie and that is largely due to Isabelle Fuhrman’s remarkable performance.  She in fact was really 10 years of age when this movie was filmed, so the fact that she pulled off all the aspects of this character so perfectly really is quite the achievement.  She really is the only reason why the plot twist manages to land, because I don’t think the movie would have worked any other way.  On paper, it is a really silly concept, but with a young performer with the right amount of conviction, a character like Esther can really become something of a nightmarish reality.

9.

COLE SEAR from THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Played by Haley Joel Osment

One of the most famous examples of the creepy kid tropes in movies is also one of the least scary.  Though Cole is a character that certainly shares a lot of the key characteristics we associate with creepy kids in horror movies, he’s also more of a character that is meant to react to all the scary stuff around him, rather than actually be the source of eerie activity himself.  Being a child with the ability to see and interact with the paranormal world, he lives in a constant state of unease which alienates him from other kids.  This is more of the driving force of the character, whose detachment carries it’s own sense of foreboding feeling.  He was a character that more than anything captured the imagination of audiences who first saw the movie when it came out and turned The Sixth Sense into a huge phenomenon, because of how well he could make us relate to his perpetual sense of dread.  A very young Haley Joel Osment perfectly captures all those aspects of the character, as his ability to “see dead people” becomes more of a curse than anything, and his hushed performance carries a lot of eerie qualities with it.  Considering that M. Night Shyamalan’s movie is  more concerned with atmosphere than scares to drive the eerie mood of his movie, and Cole as a character fits well within that kind of storytelling.  He’s the conduit for the supernatural activity in the movie, and most of it is not so much malevolent in nature, but more shocking in how it suddenly manifests in front of us.  Osment more than anything embodied the sense of dread that pervades the movie, with his genuinely terrified looking performance and world-weary tone of voice, but unlike many other spooky children on this list, he is a character that grows and strengthens as he learns to lift himself beyond fear and find a way to turn a curse into a gift.  It’s a movie about healing, even from beyond the grave, and Cole as a character fits within that mold and provides that rare creepy kid that becomes emboldened by movie’s end.

8.

CHARLIE from HEREDITARY (2018)

Played by  Milly Shapiro

The character of Charlie from Hereditary sadly does not get the same arc of fulfillment that Cole from The Sixth Sense does.  Again, not overtly established as a sinister force within the story, the character of Charlie nevertheless comes across a very creepy and bizarre presence in the early part of the story.  From here stand-off-ish personality to that weird clicking sound that she makes, you know that there is something very off about this child.  And yet, she is still sympathetic in nature.  She has a severe nut allergy that forces her into isolation while being around her fellow kids.  She is also grateful for the love of her family, and shares that love in return, which becomes a major element in the story later on.  But, like Cole in Sixth Sense, she also is a conduit for sinister things that befalls the family later on.  Interesting enough, she also shares the same actress playing her mother as Cole from Sixth Sense, the incredible Toni Colette.  Her presence definitely delivers on the creepy vibes typical of a child character like her in one of these horror movies, but what is surprising is that she isn’t a major presence in the story either.  Rather shockingly, and famously, she has a date with destiny with a particular roadside utility line pole that takes her out of the movie pretty early on.  Despite that, her brief scenes still leave an impact that carries on long after she is gone.  A lot of credit goes to actress Milly Shapiro for finding that creepy, quiet tone with the character.  It could have been far too easy to make Charlie’s weird appearance the crux of her creepiness, but Milly manages to delve deeper in her performance, to both make us sympathize with her and at the same time feel uneasy in her presence.  For this Ari Aster movie that emphasizes mood to drive the terror, mostly through the performances of the actors, Charlie’s weird eccentric presence provides and effective omen for things to come within the rest of the story.

7.

THE CHILDREN from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960)

Played by Martin Stephens and Others

The children in this classic British horror film in many ways were some of the early archetypes for the creepy kid trope.  Through some unexplained occurrence, the people of one quiet little English village fall into a deep sleep only to be awoken many days later not realizing what had happened.  Months later, the women of the village all give birth to children with unnaturally pale skin and hair.  The children grow up rapidly, and all behave the same in a creepy detached manner.  They also display unnatural powers like having glowing eyes as well as mind control and telepathy, which they are increasingly using in more sinister ways.  Whether it was done by magic or through extra-terrestrial invasion, the embodiment of a sinister through the guise of children was definitely a shocking thing for audiences to witness in these last days of the Production Code.  There is a specific sort of terror found in these children who lack individualism and carefreeness that you would normally see in a young child.  The cold, soullessness coming from these children in the Village of the Damned really is a nightmarish concept that makes them a standout presence in the horror movie pantheon.  Though defined as a group, the son of the lead characters in the movie (played by George Sanders and Barbara Shelley) named David Zellaby (played memorably by young Martin Stephens), stands out more than the others, because we see the realization of what’s going on with these children the most through how he is interacting with his increasingly terrified family.  You can really see the imprint of the children from the Village of the Damned in most other creepy kids throughout the years, including many on this list.  From the monotone tone of voice to the cold, deadly stares, to the lack of cheeriness that any normal child should have.  A lot of that comes from how effectively creepy the children in this movie proved to be.  It also might be the British accents that also contribute to the creepiness, as they give these possessed children a very old world kind of evil presence.  Regardless, these creepy kids are iconic in the whole of horror movie history and left an indelible mark that is still seen today.

6.

TOSHIO from JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002)

Played by Yuya Ozeki

While western cinema has it’s long standing tradition of horror cinema, there is also a proud legacy of scary movies to come from the East as well.  Japan in particular has been responsible for some of the most terrifying movies that have ever been made, and it stems from their own cultural fascination with the supernatural and macabre.  Japanese traditions are very much centered around humanity’s connection with the spiritual plane, and how people must act in order to stave off malevolent spirits.  Ghost stories are heavily present in Japanese folklore, and those same stories have found their way into Japanese cinema, creating some of the creepiest films ever made.  One such ghost story that really captures the imagination is the one found in the Ju-on series, involving a very vengeful ghost at it’s center.  In The Grudge, a young woman buys a home not knowing of it’s dark past.  Over time, the ghostly presence inside reveals itself, which the woman realizes is part of a curse that leaves everyone who lives inside the house dead before long.  The scariest ghostly presence in the home is that of a malevolent spirit named Kayako, a vengeful ghost who we learn was once a woman who lived in the house and was brutally murdered by her husband.  But she is not the only ghost in the home, as our protagonist also comes across a ghost of a young boy named Toshio, who is Kayako’s son who was also brutally murdered.  With bleached white skin and black ringed eyes, Toshio is also a terrifying presence, though he’s not as dangerous as his homicidal ghost mother.  He’s more of a herald to warn of when his mother is about to wreck terror on the protagonist.  Nevertheless, he still leaves an eerie impression, as the sight of a ghost child devoid of humanity is still a creepy sight to see.  The movie was remade by Hollywood in 2004, but it retained it’s original creative team from Japan and even young Yuya Ozeki reprised his role as Toshio.  It shows that even though the western audience were getting their own taste of this modern horror classic, it was still maintaining it’s Japanese identity, including the memorable ghosts that were a major part of it’s draw in the first place.

5.

BRANDON from BRIGHTBURN (2019)

Played by Jackson A. Dunn

Here we have an example of a creepy kid in a horror movie taking inspiration from another genre altogether.  For a long time, there had been a lingering What If? question in the comic book genre and that’s what would happen if the Man of Steel (Superman) were evil.  In the comics, Superman was and is a force for good, fighting for truth, justice and a better life for all.  But the reason he became this way was because he was set on the right path by his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, who instilled in him the important values that would help him become the hero that we all deserve.  But, what if the boy who would be Superman was not as fortunate to have that kind of level of parenting in his life?  That’s the question posed by Brightburn, which is not a direct adaptation of the Superman mythos flipped on it’s head, but the similarities are very clearly drawn.  In Brightburn, a boy named Brandon begins to exhibit the same kind of abilities that Superman has, including being indestructible, super strong, and capable of flight and shooting lasers from his eyes.  But, unlike Superman, he is shunned for being different and is bullied by his fellow kids.  His parents, ill-equipped to handle their son’s eccentricities, begin to isolate him even more, which only causes Brandon to grow more apathetic to humanity as a result, and more willing to use his powers to seek revenge against those who did him wrong.  When you look at Superman’s powers in general, it is kind of a terrifying concept to think of them being used for evil purposes, and that’s what this movie explores in terrifying detail.  It’s one thing for a child to have super powers; it’s another to have him become an unstoppable monster out to destroy.  It makes sense that this movie comes from a creative mind who has worked both in the worlds of comic books and horror; James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy).  In this movie, producer Gunn and his team explores the nature vs. nurture argument that is a key component of the characters that make up the comic book canon, and how the line between becoming a hero or a villain is incredibly thin.  And as a result, Brandon from Brightburn becomes a wholly different kind of creepy kid that provides an interesting meta commentary on humanity and the depictions of heroes, while at the same time keeping in that tradition of being a wholly terrifying presence through the eroding of his innocence.

4.

SAMARA from THE RING (2002)

Played by Daveigh Chase

Another translation from East to West, this memorable scary child in some ways was improved upon from the Japanese original.  I believe that Samara’s terrifying presence came across as more effective here is because this studio budget film was better able to bring the concept of the spectral character to it’s full potential.  As we learn in the movie, anyone who watches a video of a young, black haired girl emerging from a well in a grainy, worn out VHS tape ends up dying a gruesome death seven days later.  A journalist looking into the mystery (played by Naomi Watts) investigates and learns that the girl in the tape was a deeply disturbed child named Samara, who was under psychiatric care until she mysteriously disappeared.  Watt’s character soon discovers that Samara was drowned in a well by her parents, who believed that she was possessed by some evil, and sought to seal her away.  After uncovering the truth about what happened to Samara, Watt’s Rachel believes that she has broken the curse surrounding the video tape, hopefully saving her and her son, after both had watched it days before.  Unfortunately, they learn that Samara was indeed supposed to be helped.  In the movie’s most terrifying and memorable moment, we see Samara leap off of the TV screen and become a fully realized and horrifying ghost.  What makes this version of the character superior to the Japanese original is because Samara still looks like a she’s made of video tape artifacts, even while she’s a fully dimensional specter, including creepy jump cut twitching and all.  Only with more a substantial special effects budget an image such as that could work, and thankfully director Gore Verbinski puts it to effective use.  Daveigh Chase (who in that same year also voiced Lilo in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch) also brilliantly brings Samara’s terrifying presence to life, with her unnatural way of walking and piercing vengeful grimace before she claims her victims.  She indeed set a new high bar for scary child characters with her iconic final revelation in this movie, and few have managed to even come close to evoking the same kind of terror that she brings within her movie.

3.

THE GRADY TWINS from THE SHINING (1980)

Played by Louise and Lisa Burns

Stanley Kubrick’s reimagining of Stephen King’s The Shining has become one of the most monumental films ever in the horror genre.  It also set the bar high for everything that followed it, and rewrote much of the language of horror movies that we still see in practice today.  It’s also a perfect example of using the children in peril motif for creating a terrifying horror story.  At the center of the story, we have Danny Torrence (played memorably by Danny Lloyd) who has his own creepy eccentricities.  However, he’s not the scariest child found in this movie by a long shot.  That honor goes to the set of young girls known as the Grady Twins.  Victims of their own father’s demented possession within the haunted Overlook Hotel, the Grady Twins stalk the hallways of the hotel hand in hand and just give off this unsettling creepy presence.  I think that it’s the way that Kubrick first introduced the girls in the movie that sent shivers up the spines of so many people who’ve seen the movie.  We follow behind Danny Torrence as he rides his tricycle through the winding halls of the Hotel in a now iconic steadi-cam shot.  Once we turn a corner with him, punctuated by Wendy Carlos’ eerie score,  the Grady girls appear suddenly at the end of the hall.  Distant at first, the perfectly symmetrical image keeps zooming in, broken apart with quick cuts of the bloody corpses of the girls and Danny’s terrified face, with the girls repeating in eerie unison, “Come play with us Danny.  For ever, and ever, and ever.”  The Grady Twins don’t do much else in the movie, but that singular terrifying moment really struck a nerve with audiences, many whom I would bet have developed phobias about long hallways and turning corners in dark places.  What is interesting is that this moment was an addition made by Stanley Kubrick to the story, as Stephen King mentions but never shows the twins in his narrative.  Supposedly, Kubrick was inspired by an old photograph of similarly creepy looking twin girls holding hands while staring at the camera, and he believed it would be an image that lent itself well to the creepy atmosphere he needed for his movie.  He was certainly right, and the appearance of the Grady Twins has gone down as one of the most terrifying moments in cinema history.

2.

DAMIEN from THE OMEN (1976)

Played by Harvey Stephens

In this iconic Richard Donner horror flick, the creepiness of the child in question is not so much embodied in his character, but more so in the aura that he represents.  There isn’t much to the character of Damien at first; he just seems like an average child.  But, as more and more darker events begin to occur around him, we soon learn of Damien’s terrifying nature; that he is the spawn of Satan, and will grow up one day to become the Anti-Christ.  The idea of the embodiment of all evil being presented in the guise of a young child is an especially unnerving one, and it gives the movie this genuine feeling of dread throughout.  As Damien’s adoptive Father (played by Gregory Peck) investigates further into the mysterious tragedies that have occurred in the presence of the child, the dreadful truth begins to dawn on him, and he’s confronted with the harsh truth that he may have to kill a child to save the world from unbearable evil.  Richard Donner masterfully raises the suspense in the movie to the point where you really feel the terror of what Damien may one day become.  The cold, dreariness of the English setting really gives the movie an extra layer of foreboding atmosphere.  It effectively spells out for the audience the way that Damien’s mere presence brings about emptiness of life around him, like the nanny who hangs herself, or violence erupting in his wake, like the scene with the monkeys at the zoo.  And all the while, Damien appears as a mere innocent child.  That is until the final image of the film, when Damien looks back at the camera with a seemingly devilish smile while attending the funeral of the parents who died after taking him in; almost like it was his plan all along.  The concept of the Anti-Christ extended beyond the scriptural prophecies that he’s been known for over the centuries, and was fully brought to scary modern life with this movie.  It was movies like this one that gave rise to Satanic panic in many pockets of the Western world, because through it’s story, we saw how an Anti-Christ could indeed emerge in our world today, despite the fact that this movie was meant to scare and not inspire Satanic influence in the world.  It’s with the memorable final note of the movie that Richard Donner perfectly established Damien as one of the most terrifying children ever put on screen.  Pure evil, wrapped up in a veneer of childhood innocence.

1.

REGAN MACNEIL from THE EXORCIST (1973)

Played by Linda Blair

What seems to be the most terrifying presence of a scary child in any horror movie is one where a sweet, innocent kid is corrupted into a monster before our very eyes.  The most vivid case of this is Regan from The Exorcist.  We are introduced to her as a happy-go-lucky 12 year old living with her movie star mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) in Washington D.C.  As time goes on, Regan begins to go through a change of personality, loosing that sweetness that once defined her, and becoming more vulgar and violent.  Soon, she begins to become less herself and more demonic in nature.  And then the physical transformation begins.  A scratchy, otherworldly voice speaks through her, her body begins to transform into a ghoulish pallor, and she contorts into abnormal positions, including having her head spin completely around.  Eventually, it’s determined that she is possessed by the Devil and must be exorcised in order to save her life.  William Friedkin’s horror classic still manages to haunt so many years later, because of it’s frighteningly vivid portrayal of demonic possession.  The movie is devoid of all pretense and treats this supernatural story like it’s a true to life drama, which makes all the demonic elements feel more real as a result.  Linda Blair’s performance is especially memorable, because it’s her underneath the layers of make-up and flailing herself manically on the bed during the possession scenes.  It’s a lot to ask of for a young actress like her in that time, but she tackled it all in a remarkable and brave way.  The image of a possessed Regan, tied to her bed, spitting up green goo, and levitating in mid air are still the stuff of nightmares and they’ve firmly planted Regan and this movie into the stuff of horror legend.  Regan eventually has the demon expelled, but the ordeal is nothing short of a nightmare brought to life on screen, and Regan at the height of her demonic self is still one of the most terrifying images ever brought to cinema.  Through the complete corruption of an innocent soul and the creepy body horror that is inflicted on this young person, there really is no more creepy kid in cinema than a fully possessed Regan in The Exorcist.

So, there you have what I think are the most memorable and effectively creepy children ever to be brought to the silver screen.  There are of course many more notable examples out there, and it’s a trope that even isn’t limited to horror movies.  I’ve seen the creepy kid trope used in comedies sometimes to identify an eccentric outsider kid sometimes, which in some ways is a way of making fun of the at times overused cliché.  Though it can be oftentimes overused to the point of irrelevance, good horror movies have still managed to make the trope work.  Brandon in Brightburn and Charlie from Hereditary are good examples of fairly recent iterations of the trope used well, mainly due to the fact that they play around with some of the audience’s expectations with the commonly used trope.  And as we’ve seen, a creepy child is often part of some of the most iconic horror movies that have ever been made, including The Shining and The Exorcist, where a child is front and center within those stories.  I think that the effectiveness of the trope comes from the expectation of the genre, where having a child in the presence of danger and overwhelming evil just ups the suspense because it’s someplace that we all acknowledge a child should never be.  Going further and having the child be the source of evil itself, like The Omen’s Damien or The Ring’s Samara just increases the scary factor even more.  These horror movies have also helped to establish some very disturbing characteristics of creepy kids, including the joyless montone voice and the lifeless stare, that if done right can still send a chill down ones spine.  We all expect monsters and ghouls to come in terrifying, larger than life packages.  It just becomes more unsettling when something as adorable and innocent as a young child becomes that instrument of terror in a movie.  But, it’s a trope that in the end gives us the most memorable frights, and these ten creepy kids are perfect examples of that.  So, even though scares may be coming in a smaller than expected package, it nevertheless can deliver the biggest of frights at the movies.

Top Ten Medieval Movies

There are many different kinds of movies that stand strong over the years, but what usually stands up the strongest are the ones centered around adventure.  There’s something to be said about crowd pleasers that deliver on thrills, both on an intimate and epic scale.  Though you can find adventure films that span across all types of genres (fantasy, sci-fi, and so forth) what seems to capture the imagination the most for many audiences are adventures of a historic kind.  Human history is full of moments in time that have become the things of legend, and these historical moments in turn provide ample inspiration for cinematic treatment.  The historical epic was at one time the most dominant of all genres in Hollywood, especially during the advent of widescreen into cinemas.  Historical dramas, whether they be biblical, prehistoric, or medieval, gave Hollywood a chance to show off the craft of their trade on a scale unseen before.  They provided production design, costuming, and prop making a chance to indulge in extravagance while at the same time being grounded in a historical context that wouldn’t be too alienating to audiences.  But even though these kinds of movies were rousing crowd pleasers, they were at the same time enormously expensive to undertake, and each one would be a gamble once it hit theaters.  Over time, the gamble would prove to be too much for the industry, and the historical drama would recede as a force within the industry.  But, the movies that we have gotten over the years still stand out as shining examples of Hollywood working with all engines running, and taken out of the context of their performance at the box office, some of these movies eventually do find their audience, especially among those who wish to see epic cinema at it’s most ambitious.

Of the many historical epics that have especially stood the test of time, the most interesting group among them are those set within what we consider the Medieval Dark Ages.  This was the period of chivalry, mighty castle fortresses and epic battles between knights in armor.  At least that’s what we understand from a majority of the movies made in Hollywood about that time period.  But in reality, Medieval times really applies globally, with different parts of the world that shared many different upheavals that defined their history that also could be considered epic in scope.  While Europe was in the midst of the rising influence of their warring kingdoms, the Tsars were consolidating power in the Russian steppes, Genghis Khan was continuing his conquest of China and growing his vast Mongol empire, feudalism rose the samurais to ultimate power in the Japanese archipelago, and vast empires were rising in the Americas under the Mayans and the Incas.  Though separated by vast distances on the globe, every part of the world was experiencing their own epic stories during these tumultuous times, and they have been the inspiration for some of cinema’s grandest adventures.  In this list, I am going to list my own choices for the best medieval movies from across the globe.  Keep in mind, I am classifying these movies based solely on their place within a certain historical time and place.  Some of these stories can feature supernatural and fantasy elements, but they have to be earthbound, so no fantasy realms with medieval influence will be on this list (The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride) and they have to be entirely set in the Medieval times (no Highlander).  Before I begin, here are a couple noteworthy movies that didn’t make my list, but are still worth seeing: Black Death (2010), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Name of the Rose (1987), El Cid (1961), Apocalypto (2006), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Sword in the Stone (1963), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Wolfwalkers (2020), The Court Jester (1955), and The Hidden Fortress (1956).  Now, let’s take a look at my picks for the 10 best Medieval movies of all time.

10.

THE LION IN WINTER (1968)

Directed by Anthony Harvey

Not all Medieval movies need to be centered around epic sword battles.   In this case, it’s centered around an extremely dysfunctional family who just so happen to be the sovereign rulers of the kingdoms of England and France all meeting together for a Christmas gathering.  That’s not to say it’s without it’s own thrilling twists and turns.  Adapted by writer James Goldman from his own play, The Lion in Winter centers upon the political machinations of King Henry II of England and his would be heirs.  Though the many members of the family come together out of obligations to their familial ties, it’s clear throughout the course of the story that each is trying to outwit one another in a pursuit of power.  Henry (played magnificently by Peter O’Toole, who also previously played the same role in 1964’s Becket) has sired another child with his mistress and he seeks to legitimize the child and give him a claim to the throne over his older, grown sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry).  Complicating the family matters even more are the visiting Prince Phillip of France (Timothy Dalton) and the Queen Mother Elanor of Aquitaine (Kathrine Hepburn), both of whom stir up more disunity within the family for their own quest for power.  Taking place over the course of one tumultuous Christmas Eve, the story is an intriguing look at the back-stabbing squabbles of the ruling class.  As a movie, it’s a beautifully constructed film with authentic medieval flavor.  It’s also a tour de force of acting, with many rising stars like Hopkins and Dalton commanding the screen.  But above all else, it is the absolute queen Kathrine Hepburn who commands the film.  Winning the third of her four Oscars with her performance here, her presence elevates the movie to epic heights, and really takes her real life historical figure into the realm of legend.  Though intimate in scope, The Lion in Winter is nevertheless a Medieval classic in every way.

9.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2005)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Taking the opposite direction from The Lion in Winter’s intimate story of inter-family politics, we see here a prime example of epic filmmaking within a Medieval setting ramped up to it’s zenith.  Director Ridley Scott had already modernized the sword and sandal epic with his Oscar winning Gladiator (2000) just a few years prior, and he looked to do the same with this Crusades era epic centered around the Battle of Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the same way.  20th Century Fox butchered Scott’s original vision to release it in theaters in a more palatable 2 1/2 hour runtime.  Sadly, the theatrical cut was an uneven mess that failed at the box office.  But, somehow Ridley was able to convince the studio to release his original 3 hour and 15 minute version on home video and audiences were able to see the movie as he originally intended.  What we discovered was not only a movie far superior to the one released in theaters, but probably one of the greatest medieval war epics ever made.  The character motivations made more sense, the flow of the story was more natural, and it was far more introspective of the themes throughout the story.  Written by screenwriter William Monaghan, the story focuses on a lowly farmer named Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) who through lineage and perseverance finds himself transported from the snowy fields of France to the scorching deserts of the Middle East, where he in turn ends up commanding a defense of Jerusalem from the Sarasin army of Muslim warrior King Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).  The epic adventure has all the grandeur you’d expect, but the longer cut also provides an interesting meditation on the morality of war.  What Scott and Monaghan do so well in the story is their fair portrayal of both sides in the battle.  Saladin is shown to be an honorable leader, as is his counterpart on the Christian side, the leper King Baldwin (a remarkable uncredited and masked Edward Norton), and it’s the Zealot agitators on the edges that are truly responsible for the atrocities of the Crusades.  The movie was made in the midst of the ramp-up of the War on Terror, and the movie illustrates the folly of “holy wars” and imperialist nation building.  Sadly, the movie that illustrated that the best was left off the big screen in favor of a truncated version free of controversy.  At least Ridley Scott was able to get his version seen in the end and it should be the only version anyone ever sees.

8.

ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938)

Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Even the Soviets knew the crowd pleasing force that epic Medieval adventure could have on the big screen.  Pioneering filmmaker Eisenstein, who made a name for himself and Russian cinema with silent epics like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), continued into the sound era with rousing propaganda adventures meant to spotlight the glory of the Russian worker post Revolution.  However, his often extravagant films were criticized as too bourgeois for the more hard lined Stalinist regime.  Still, when Russia needed a rousing adventure film to move the masses, he was called upon to deliver.  During the 1930’s, the Soviets were concerned by the rising power of Fascism coming from Germany under the reign of Hitler.  To convince the Russian people of the evils of Germany, the Soviet regime enlisted Eisenstein to adapt a famous Russian legend of a noble Prince named Alexander Nevsky who successfully defended the Russian people from an invasion from Teutonic (i.e. German) invaders.  And deliver he did, with a magnificent Medieval epic that transcends it’s propaganda origins.  Alexander Nevsky is one of the most exquisitely crafted epic movies of it’s era, with Eisenstein pushing the limits of scale and drama to the extreme.  The production design is top notch, and has even set the standard high not just for Russian cinema, but even that of Hollywood.  The harrowing battle on a river of ice is a particular highlight that is still unmatched nine decades later.  What is particularly surprising is that Eisenstein was inspired not just by cinema from European contemporaries, but from an unlikely Western source as well; Disney.  His staging and camera composition, as well as his use of music, actually owes a lot of influence to some of the more epic cartoons that the animation studio was churning out at the time, including the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937).  The Western influence was perhaps too noticeable, because Stalin banned the film for several years after a peace treaty was signed with Hitler’s Germany in 1938.  That treaty didn’t last long, and war soon broke out, forcing the movie to be released in full finally, however it was too late for Eisenstein whose good standing with the Soviet government was never able to recover.

7.

SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Eric Larson, and Hamilton Luske

Speaking of Disney, they’ve had their own long history with movies in a Medieval setting.  With fairy tales being the source of most of their most noteworthy movies, it seems only natural that one or two would be set in a Medieval period.  The already mentioned Snow White certainly centers it’s story in a vaguely Medieval, Germanic setting, and Disney also did their own spin on Arthurian and Robin Hood legends with 1963’s The Sword in the Stone and 1973’s Robin Hood.  But, if there is one movie that is unmistakably tied to Medieval times in both story and it’s visual aesthetic, it’s Sleeping Beauty.  Before you say that I’m bending the rules to include this here, I want to point out that despite the fantasy elements this version of the story is based on the Charles Perrault adaptation, which firmly sets the story of Briar Rose in a distinctly Medieval French setting.  And I think above all the other movies on this list, this movie does the best job of conveying the feel of the middle ages through art.  Walt Disney wanted this film to look different from any he made before, and in particular, he wanted it to look like a moving medieval tapestry come to life.  Long before the Renaissance would revolutionize the art of painting, the most common artform in the middle ages was weaving tapestries for the walls of castles.  Within them, they immortalized great achievements by kings and knights, and did so with remarkable, stylized graphic detail.  Disney translated this look into the angular, sharp edged style of Sleeping Beauty, which conveys a look of unmistakable medieval influence.  The forest scenes alone are spectacular in their attention to the tiniest details.  Disney also romanticizes the epic adventure aspect of the story in a way no one else could, with grand palatial castles that seem to extend on forever, and an epic battle between the forces of good and evil that is one of the grandest things ever put on screen.  The final battle between the Prince and the evil fairy Maleficent in her dragon form is the stuff of cinema legend.  It certainly sets in the audience’s eye the ideal for how a medieval adventure should look, and it certainly does a lot to spotlight just how interesting the artwork of that period was.

6.

EXCALIBUR (1981)

Directed by John Boorman

Sticking with a segment of the medieval era depicted on screen, we find one of the most imaginative retellings of the legend of King Arthur.  The origins of the King Arthur legend and his mythical kingdom of Camelot are still a mystery to many historians, but they are still a large part of the grander cultural identity of the British isles.  Much of what we honor as the ideals of the chivalry of knights and their codes of honor stems from the Arthurian legends.  And with this version directed by the always unconventional John Boorman, we get one of the most ethereal retellings of the age old legend, while still remarkably staying true to it’s source material.  You get all the expected extravagance of a typical medieval epic, as well as some the oddball touches that the Zardoz filmmaker was known for.  There’s a half demented Merlin hanging around (played to perfection by Nicol Williamson), a Knights of the Round Table cast that includes Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson in their earliest film roles, as well as Helen Mirren playing an evil sorceress.  But perhaps what makes the movie work as well as it does is the fact that it feels much less like a product of Hollywood and more like the product of an artist trying to convey a true feeling of the story’s medieval roots.  Boorman shot most of the movie in real castles in Ireland, and almost all of the movie is on location around these monuments or outside in the surrounding forests.  There’s a level of authenticity found here, where the medieval setting feels more lived in, than previous films had ever captured before, and it helped to set a new standard for many of the medieval setting movies that were to come after.  You can see from the rise of fantasy films throughout the mid to late 80’s the strong influence of Boorman’s Excalibur.  Though Arthurian tales are plentiful in the history of cinema, few have been as influential as this one was.

5.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

On top of King Arthur, the other go to medieval legend that has been a stalwart in Hollywood has been that of Robin Hood.  It almost seems like every generation is eager to deliver it’s own new spin on the character, and we’ve seen Sir Robin of Locksley make it to the silver screen dozens of times now.  Whether it’s Disney’s fox, the aging version brought to life by Sean Connery, or the different star vehicle versions with Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe, there are plenty that first come to mind when we think of the name Robin Hood.  But, if we were to point out the greatest cinematic version of the legendary story, most would point to this adaptation from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Perhaps one of the greatest swashbucklers to ever come out of the Hollywood system, The Adventures of Robin Hood is the epitome of classic Hollywood.  With dashing Australian matinee idol Errol Flynn in the titular role, we get a Robin Hood that is all parts handsome, charismatic and worth rooting for.  His appeal as a rebellious figure in the face of injustice was particularly poignant for it’s time as both America and Britain were witnessing the rise of Fascism throughout Europe.  Making Robin Hood a champion of the oppressed helped to mold this centuries old legend into something that could motivate modern day audiences, much in the same way Sergei Eisenstein was doing at the same time with Alexander Nevsky.  Regardless of it’s higher meaning, the movie set the bar high for medieval adventure filmmaker for many years after.  Though glossy as most historical movies of that time were, Adventures of Robin Hood is a technicolor extravaganza, with the colors of all the costumes and the sets just leaping off the screen.  Though many Robin Hood movies have come after, I don’t think any have come close to being as thoroughly delightful as what what we see here.  It’s high adventure at it’s best.  Whether he’s swinging from tree to tree, firing arrows at far away targets, or doing one on one battle with the nefarious Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone), Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood stands tall amongst all the rest.

4.

THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Now we have a medieval movie that certainly lives up to that moniker.  Far from the sugar-coated view of Medieval times that Hollywood presented, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on mortality is as grim as it gets.  Set in the midst of a breakout of the black death across Europe, we follow a set of common people living in Medieval Sweden who are constantly in fear of the specter of death that hangs around them.  Death even appears in physical form as a man dressed in black robes (played by Bengt Ekerot) who challenges a knight returned from the Crusades (the late Max von Sydow) to a game of chess.  Highly symbolic, Bergman’s story nevertheless is grounded in it’s medieval setting.  In many ways, this was the most accurate depiction of life in Medieval times that movie audiences had seen.  The hardship of the peasantry struggling to live in harsh times is certainly something that hadn’t been seen on the big screen, as Hollywood was more intrigued by the high chivalrous aspects of the time period.  Bergman’s medieval world is harsh, grimey and without much chivalry to speak of.  Even Max von Sydow’s knight is treated with much less chivalry than what was coming out of Hollywood.  Despite the grimness of the story, Bergman’s Seventh Seal is captivating as our band of characters try their best to stay out of death’s way, which we ultimately learn is a foolish endeavor.  Coming out of our most recent pandemic, The Seventh Seal takes on even more relevance, as we see so much civility and normality fall down around us in response to a microbial threat that we are still trying to come to grips with.  It’s a still haunting tale that uses it’s medieval setting to glorious effect.  In many ways, it echoes the kind of fables that would have been told in those times, which would have been shared in response to hardships that medieval people had to endure.  You probably won’t find a more poetic image in cinema than the danse macabre that closes the film, as Death leads our band of characters into the afterlife in an unforgettable hillside parade.

3.

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

And now for something completely different.  The legendary comedy team behind Monty Python’s Flying Circus made their big screen debut with this parody of medieval epics, and did so in the silliest way they could.  Typical of their legendary irreverent style of comedy, the movie eviscerates every medieval movie trope known.  Each new segment of the movie is full of quotable lines and the most ridiculous slapstick, and each has become the stuff of legend in their own right.  There’s the Castle of the French Taunters, the Black Knight who defends his post to the point of lunacy, the Knights who say Ni, the viscous white rabbit guarding the cave who can only be bested by the Holy Hand Grenade, and the sexy adventure through Castle Anthrax.  Each episode is more ridiculous than the next and showcases the six person squad of comedic geniuses (Terry Jones, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam) at their very best.  In addition to all the insanity, the movie does feel authentic to it’s medieval roots as well.  It’s clear that these scholarly comedians are thoroughly familiar with Arthurian legends, and have a deep understanding of English history as well; all of which gets mocked incessantly throughout the movie.  At the same time, the movie’s micro budget actually works in it’s favor, as it gives the medieval setting a more earthbound, lived in feel.  Most of the movie was actually shot around a real castle in Scotland, which had to play the part of many different castles throughout the movie.  And the on location feel of the movie really helps to make it feel authentic; something Excalibur would also do a few years later with a more substantial budget.  Holy Grail is to many the pinnacle of the Monty Python output, and even almost 50 years later it’s still one of the funniest movies ever made.  How many people do you know have quoted some part of this movie, from “Tis but a scratch,” to “Go away or I shall taunt you a second time.”  But if there is one quote that perfect sums up the insanity of the movie’s medieval setting, it’s, “Let’s not go to Camelot.  Tis a silly place.”

2.

BRAVEHEART (1995)

Directed by Mel Gibson

Putting all the controversy about Mr. Gibson aside, there is no doubt that he captured something unique with his Oscar winning film Braveheart.  The only movie with a medieval setting to ever claim the Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards, Braveheart is not without it’s own controversies.  Historians, particularly Scottish historians, will tell you that this movie is filled to the brim with historical inaccuracies; to the point of being more fiction than fact.  But, given that Hollywood has had a long history of fudging with historical facts to make their stories more entertaining, it doesn’t seem that unusual that Braveheart would do the same as well.  And that’s the point behind Gibson’s story about the Scottish rebel known as William Wallace.  He wanted to make history into legend and tell a rousing story in the process like the historical epics that Hollywood used to make.  And while historians balked, audiences embraced this epic adventure.  Many claim it’s even been responsible for revitalizing renewed interest in Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.  For the most part, Gibson’s direction does what most great epics of the past have done which is take full advantage of the tricks of the trade that are at his disposal.  Before Braveheart, you usually would see epic battles shown from a distance, which allowed the audience to see the vastness of the scene in full.  But Mel puts the camera right in the middle of the action on the ground, showing the audience all the bloody mayhem up close.  It’s some of the most harrowing combat ever put on screen and in many ways it would set the standard for epic battles for the next several decades.  You can see the imprint of Braveheart in everything from Gladiator, to The Lord of the Rings, to even Game of Thrones on television.  At the same time, Mel keeps the internal story interesting, with a supporting cast that feels authentically at home in this world.  Of special note is Patrick McGoohan as King Edward Longshanks, one of the most unforgettable movie villains ever and a personal favorite of mine.  As far as medieval epics go, you’ll be pressed to find one that checks all the boxes as effectively as Braveheart does; one of the absolute benchmarks of it’s genre.

1.

SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Strangely the greatest movie with a medieval setting isn’t what most people would consider typically medieval.  But, out East, while Europe was in the midst of it’s middle ages and saw the rise of kings and knights, the Island of Japan was also in the midst of it’s own feudal rise to prominence.  Instead of knights in chain mail and armor, Japan had Samurai who had mastered the art of swordplay.  This era too has been mined for cinematic retellings, and out of Japan’s cinema industry rose one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; Akira Kurosawa.  Though he worked in genres both historical and contemporary, Kurosawa had an special fondness for this period of his nation’s history and he would return to the Samurai genre many times.  Of all his movies set within this medieval period, none stands out more than what many consider (like me) to be his masterpiece; Seven Samurai.  Seven Samurai is not a specific fable important to Japanese history, but instead tells a more intimate story of common people trying to survive the hardships of their times.  Much like Bergman’s Seventh SealSamurai is more about a universal lesson in the nature of mankind that resonates far beyond it’s medieval setting.  Even still, Kurosawa tells this simple story in the most epic way possible.  The titular samurai all come together to protect a small village from a band of marauders who terrorize them daily, and over the course of the movie, we learn more about them as individuals.  It’s a story that can be transposed to any place in the world, and has as it’s been turned into everything from a Western to a Pixar animated film starring bugs.  There have even been re-imaginings of it in a medieval European setting, which is appropriate given the time period.  Still, the story feels most at home in it’s Samurai genre beginnings, and it showcases just how interesting that period in time was to Japanese, and world history.  Though half a world away from where we expect it, the finest example of a movie making the most of it’s medieval setting is found over in the land of the Rising Sun, and that’s first and foremost because it’s not only a great movie within it’s own genre, but one of the greatest movies ever made period.

So, there you have my picks for the best medieval movies ever made.  As you can see, I tried to look beyond just Hollywood and see the time period in a more global sense.  A lot of these cultures were more interconnected than you’d think, as things like the Mongol Empire and the Age of Discovery connected once disparate cultures faster than ever before.  Seven Samurai may be world’s away from the knights in armor epics of Hollywood, but at the same time it still has a lot in common, particularly with it’s themes and the way it stages itself.  Kurosawa himself was influenced by Hollywood epics, so it makes sense that they would also take inspiration from him in this cyclical exchange of creative ideas within the global cinematic market.  Still, I imagine that when most people think of Medieval set movies, they first will think of the films centered around legends like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and that’s a pretty good assessment of the genre’s identity in all of cinema.  Medieval movies are the homes of legends.  It’s where we go to find rousing adventures that transport us to a different time and place.  As we’ve seen, they’ve been used as powerful propaganda tools like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and have also shaped the standards of cinematic art like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  They also help to turn unknown figures lost in the annals of history into instant legends, like Braveheart did with William Wallace.  They are also effective in preserving the legends of the past that we otherwise have little written records of; an effective continuation of oral tradition passed on into modern times.  I do wish that the historical epic wasn’t too much of a risk for Hollywood studios to undertake today.  There are some that try to revitalize this long dormant genre, like Netflix’s Outlaw King (2018) and The King (2019), and this year we are getting two ambitious twists on the genre with David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021).  Hopefully these two succeed in finding an audience and help to prove that medieval epic movies have their place in contemporary cinema.  Medieval tales of knights, kings, and yes even samurai, have their place in our culture as tried and true legends, and naturally their movies fulfill that same glory.

Top Ten Memorable Moments From the Oscars

In it’s 93 year history, the Academy Awards have grown into the film industry’s highest level of achievement for every year.  In the last couple decades in particular, winning an Academy Award (or Oscar for short) is the ultimate goal that every studio and production company hinges their best hopes on when they reach the year’s end.  The Oscars are an industry driver in of themselves, influencing the choices in casting, the amount of money devoted to a movie’s production and it’s promotion, as well as what a movie studio is willing to invest in buying the rights for a strong performer out of the festival circuit.  In the end, it all leads to one night time ceremony where all the efforts come to fruition, and the Hollywood elite are able to gather together and take part in a yearly celebration of their community.  The Oscars telecast itself has seen highs and lows over the years, and in many cases have offered up some truly memorable moments.  Whether it’s an overly enthusiastic acceptance speech, a somber moment of reflection, an impassioned call for action, or just a crazy, out-of-the-blue moment of spontaneous insanity.  The history of the Oscars is just as fascinating as the history of Hollywood itself, with it’s own twists and turns over it’s near century of existence.  What follows is my own list of what I think are some of the most memorable and groundbreaking moments in the history of the Oscars.  They range between historic milestones to moments that will live in infamy.  I’ve also included embeds of those specific moments from the Oscars own YouTube page (I do not claim any ownership of these clips and they are the sole property of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences).  So let’s take a trip down Oscar memory lane and look at the most memorable moments from the Academy Awards.

10.

TOM HANKS THANKS HIS GAY MENTORS IN FIRST OSCAR WIN (1994)

Tom Hanks is without a doubt his generation’s most respected movie star.  With a career that now spans across 5 decades, he has been a part of some of cinema’s most iconic films in the last half century, and has been duly honored for his many iconic performances.  He stands alongside the likes of Spencer Tracy, Kathrine Hepburn, Luise Rainer and Jason Robards as one of the few who have won back to back honors at the Oscars in the same category.  His two Oscars were for the movies Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994).  While both Oscar wins were well deserved for the extremely versatile performer, it was his performance as an AIDS stricken gay man fighting for his rights in Philadelphia that is especially well remembered.  Also remembered fondly was Hank’s impassioned acceptance speech that night.  After thanking his loved ones and creative collaborators, Tom continued with a special recognition of two people in particular.  One was his high school drama teacher, Raleigh Farnsworth, and the other a close friend and classmate named John Gilkerson.  He named these two individuals in particular because they were the first people who he knew that were gay, and their friendship with him helped to shape Tom’s compassionate attitude towards the gay community.  In his speech, Hanks goes beyond just acknowledging the many victims of the AIDS epidemic, and makes a plea for tolerance for the entire Queer community in general.  “My were honored here tonight is magnified by the fact that the streets in heaven are crowded with angels,” he remarked, and it was a more powerful statement in that ceremony than any red ribbon worn on a dress or coat could have made.  The moment was so memorable in fact, that it inspired it’s own movie, In & Out (1997), with the twist being the teacher thanked in the speech was not fully out of the closet.  Queer acceptance in society has faced a long uphill road, but with moments like Tom Hank’s win and acceptance speech for Philadelphia, the conversation was thankfully moved in a direction that made it possible for future progress to be made.

9.

“IT’S…A TIE” (1969)

The voting results of the Oscars are a closely held secret, but we do know for certain how the Academy votes are tallied.  What the Academy uses for many categories is a weighted system based on ranking members choices for each category, and then having those rankings weighted together with the straight across vote count.  This system is still in use today for many categories, including Best Picture, which has led to some interesting results over the years (more on that later).  One of the interesting results of this voting system is that it often leads to a tie in some categories, even though the base vote count may favor one winner over the other.  Usually this happens in some of the lower tier categories, and even then only rarely.  The last time it occurred was in 2012 with Sound Editing, with Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall sharing the honor.  However, the categories that don’t use the weighted system are the acting categories, which are determined solely by popular vote.  This was enacted in 1968 by then President of the Academy, Gregory Peck, and the Board of Directors in the hopes that it would eliminate any confusion over the winner and prevent a thing like a tie from happening.  So, you can see why presenter Ingrid Bergman was so surprised when she opened the envelope for Best Actress to see two winners.  For a tie to happen in this new system, it means that the winners had to have had the same exact number of votes, meaning that this moment achieved the even rarer feat of being the only ever exact tie in Oscar history.  The honors in that unprecedented moment went to Kathrine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter (her third overall) and Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl (her first and only).  Ms. Hepburn, a perennial no-show, had director Anthony Harvey accept for her instead, so Babs had the spotlight to herself in this crazy moment.  The feat of an exact tie has yet to be repeated since, but what this moment proved is that nothing is impossible at the Oscars.

8.

THE STREAKER (1974)

The Oscars are first and foremost a classy, refined presentation, sometimes to a fault.  The intent is to showcase the glamourous side of the business, with so much effort put into showmanship and eye catching fashion during each ceremony.  But, every now and then, whether planned or not, some moments break through the stuffiness and instantly become the thing of Academy Awards legend. One such moment happened near the end of the 1974 Oscars ceremony.  Jack Lemmon had just left the stage after picking up his Best Actor honor for Save the Tiger (1973) and David Niven approached the podium to introduce the next presenter.  Niven expected in that moment to give a respectful introduction to Elizabeth Taylor, spotlighting her impact on the silver screen and her charitable endeavors off it, but not everything went as planned.  Suddenly out of the wings of the Oscars stage came a man running behind David Niven completely naked.  The “Streaker” was an amateur photographer named Robert Opel who somehow managed to sneak into the backstage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, strip nude, and run across the stage while cameras were rolling live across the world.  He was immediately apprehended by security, but not before causing mayhem on stage and giving the the Hollywood elite an unexpected shock.  Poor David Niven was in the the awkward situation of trying to get the ceremony back on track, but with some savage and dry British wit, he did just that, saying, “isn’t it fascinating to think that the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”  It was a spectacular bit of chaos to shake up the stuffiness of the Oscars and also a pitch perfect response from one of Hollywood’s most quick witted actors.

7.

CHRIS ROCK’S “OSCARS SO WHITE” MONOLOGUE (2016)

One of the long standing traditions at the Academy Awards ceremonies is having a well known comedian, actor or stage performer take on hosting duties.  Sometimes the Academy will enjoy a host so much, they’ll ask them to come back multiple times.  Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal in particular were prolific in their multiple appearances at the Oscars.  And usually one of the things that made their appearances so entertaining were the monologues that they performed at the opening of the ceremony.  During these monologues, the host is able to take the opportunity to poke a little fun at the industry, and help deflate some of the pomp and circumstance a bit in order to allow the people watching at home to have a good laugh at Hollywood’s expense.  It’s all in good fun, but oftentimes, the host is made to toe the line in order not to offend those in the audience too much, and steer clear of touchy subjects as well that might reflect badly on the industry.  However, when the Oscars court controversy of their own, and have to eat crow for their own shortcomings, it does free up the host to take the gloves off and actually hit a little harder.  One such confluence happened in the aftermath of the “Oscars So White” controversy, where for several repeated years in a row, the Academy had failed to nominate an actor of color in their top categories.  By coincidence, this controversy arose the same year that black comedian Chris Rock was set to host.  So, with the Oscars in a position where they needed to be publicly shamed and a comedian whose proficient in tackling racial issues in his stand-up, the result ended up being one of the funniest, no-holds-barred Oscar Monologues in it’s entire history.  Chris Rock did not hold back, with some hilarious zingers like “Welcome to the White People’s Choice Awards,” as well as a couple of jokes so hard hitting that you could feel the audience at the Dolby Theater squirm in their seats a little.  Even still, it was great to see Chris Rock take his opportunity and run with it, even going beyond critiquing just the Oscars and actually addressing the problem with lack of representation across the entire industry.  Most importantly, he kept it funny while at the same time pointed and it resulted in the best Academy Awards opening ever.

6.

HATTIE MCDANIEL MAKES HISTORY (1940)

Speaking of racial barriers in Hollywood, the early Golden Age of Hollywood was one marred by a history of racism that prevented many people of color from achieving any semblance of equality within the industry.  Black actors in particular were pretty much relegated to servant roles, with very little presence on screen and even less influence behind the camera.  It was sadly a result of not just Hollywood’s racist past, but America’s as well, where movies were made to prop up the false narrative of black servitude in a world of white superiority.  Very few black actors that chose to work through that system very rarely ever won praise from it, often being looked down by their white co-stars and being chastised by black activists who blamed them for propagating these negative stereotypes.  There were a couple of black actors that did rise above the prejudices of the day and demanded attention from both Hollywood and audiences alike.  One of those trailblazers was Hattie McDaniel.  McDaniel had been a popular stage performer before making her way to Hollywood.  She broke through the prejudices of the day by becoming a scene stealer in the Kathrine Hepburn screwball comedy Alice Adams (1935), playing an assertive, sharp-tonged household maid, upending the common stereotype.  She took her newfound popularity to help build a healthy career as an actor, even despite being relegated to servant roles, because she could make them her own.  This led to a highly coveted role of Mammy in the epic Gone With the Wind (1939), a role that though controversial would still turn her into an icon.  The historic success of that movie carried through to the Oscars, and Hattie too made history by becoming the first ever person of color to receive the honor of an Oscar win.  Even still, Ms. McDaniel had to enter the Ambassador Hotel venue through a back door kitchen entry instead of walk the red carpet with her co-stars, and she was made to sit in the back of the room well out of view of the rest of the attendees.  It was a small, maybe even empty gesture, but it was one that carried a lot of weight for black actors everywhere who strived to build upon what Hattie had started.

5.

JACK PALANCE SHOWS OFF ON STAGE (1992)

One of the little thrills of the Oscars ceremony is not knowing what the winner might do once they take the stage to accept their honor.  For the most part, the winners give a heartfelt thanks to their loved ones, their co-stars and their agents.  Some take their moment on stage to use as a soap box for a cause that is special to them.  And then you have the wild cards who do something on the stage during their acceptance speech that you would’ve never expected.  Jack Palance was one of those wild cards when he won his Oscar for Supporting Actor in City Slickers (1991).  Now, Palance’s win was not unexpected.  He was one of the industry’s most beloved and well-respected actors whose place in the pantheon of Academy Award winners was long overdue.  But, when he took the stage to accept his Award, what followed was not what anyone expected.  The often ornery and hilariously callous actor immediately began by taking a jab at his City Slicker co-star, Billy Crystal, who was also hosting that night, saying, “Billy Crystal; I crap bigger than him.”  He then went into a diatribe about young vs. old actors, which led to the then septuagenarian actor towards feeling compelled to show off his virility there in that moment.  He walked away from the podium, and proceeded to do one-armed push-ups in front of the whole audience.  The moment received a raucous amount of laughter, and remained the talk of the night for the rest of the ceremony.  It was especially mana from heaven for host Billy Crystal, because now he had fodder to make fun of for the rest of the ceremony.  What’s especially great about Jack Palance’s speech is just how spontaneously off-the-wall it was, with the actor clearly not giving a damn how he looked in the moment and just showing off what a good time he was having.  It’s moments like this that people love to watch the Oscars for, and it’s especially great when a legendary performer like Palance basically gives us what we wanted.

4.

SIDNEY POITIER BREAKS DOWN BARRIERS (1964)

Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win for Gone With the Wind was historic to be sure, but the world was very different twenty-three year later when that feat would be repeated once again.  The Civil Rights movement had taken hold in America, as black people across the country demanded an end to the Jim Crow laws and racial segregation that had blocked them from gaining any meaningful sense of equality in society.  Hollywood went through it’s own reckoning, as more and more filmmakers were addressing the issue of Racism in America more head on than before.  And more importantly, it was doing away with the racial stereotyping that had long been used to misrepresent people of color in modern society.  One of the pioneers of this period in time who managed to rise above and become the first black performer to become a head-lining movie star was Sidney Poitier.  Poitier commanded the screen with dignified, powerful performances that broke free of stereotype in beloved movies like No Way Out (1950) and Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958).  But, in the early 60’s when civil rights marches were happening all over America, Poitier not only proved to be a powerful actor on screen, but a defining symbol of empowerment for black people in all walks of life.  It seemed inevitable that Hollywood would come to recognize that too.  With his acclaimed performance in the movie Lillies of the Field (1963), Poitier made history as the first actor of color to win an Oscar for a Leading Role.  Picking up where Hattie McDaniel left off, Sidney’s win was an important statement and so much more than an empty gesture.  It was Hollywood declaring that things were going to change and that black performers were no longer going to be a novelty but rather an integral part of the industry going forward.  Sadly, it would take another long spell for a black actor to win again, with Denzel Washington winning Best Actor for Training Day in 2002.  Poitier’s win meant a lot for America, it’s just too bad that it’s taken us so long to live up to it as a society.

3.

MARLON BRANDO REFUSES HIS OSCAR WIN (1973)

Politics have always managed to find their way into the Oscars ceremony.  Most often there are jokes made at the expense of certain political figures, and at other times a winner will use their moment on stage to make a statement on any certain issue.  And then there are moments where the very acceptance of an award becomes a statement on it’s own.  It’s sometimes hard to believe that anyone would want to refuse something as monumental as an Oscar win, but it has actually happened twice in the history of the Oscars.  The first was in 1971, where actor George C. Scott refused his win in the Best Actor category for the movie Patton (1970) because he considered the very idea of popularity contest like the Oscars to be detrimental to the art of acting.  More of a personal choice than a political one.  However, only two years later, another Hollywood icon would likewise refuse his win for Best Actor as well, and he did so in the most unexpected of ways.  Marlon Brando was a no-show when his name was read on stage for his winning performance in The Godfather (1972).  But to everyone’s surprise, a woman dressed in Native American clothing took the stage on his behalf.  Her name was Sacheen Littlefeather, a representative of the Apache tribe.  She first refused to take the Oscar from the presenters and instead took to the podium and delivered a statement from Brando addressing the misrepresentation and lack of support for Native Americans within the film industry.  She was immediately met with boos from the audience, as well as a few cheers of support.  Immediately, the industry complained that this was disrespectful troll on Brando’s part, and conspiracies persisted that Sacheen wasn’t even a real Native American but was instead was an adult performer that Brando had paid off to prank the Oscars.  Sadly, the moment’s peculiar circumstance overshadowed the very real statement that was being made, and it was perhaps unfair to ridicule an activist like Ms. Littlefeather just as a way to knock down Brando for disrupting their, as he put it, “little fantasy.”  Even still, it’s a moment in Oscar History infamy, and one that honestly deserves a more enlightened reexamining.

2.

CHARLIE CHAPLAIN RETURNS FROM HIS HOLLYWOOD EXILE (1972)

There has long been a tradition of singling out a beloved member of the Hollywood community for a special recognition, often as a celebration of their entire body of work towards the later part of their career.  It’s also a great way of giving beloved actors and filmmakers an Oscar that often eluded them in competitive races.  Basically, it gives these perennial bridesmaids a chance to finally take an award home for themselves.  For a lot of moments like these, they are a great trip down memory lane for everyone, both industry professionals and audiences alike.  But sometimes the honors take on an even more poignant significance.  That was the case at the end of the 1972 Oscar ceremony.  This year, the Academy was honoring one of the pioneering icons of the entire film industry, the legendary Charlie Chaplain.  Chaplain being honored by the Oscars was obviously inevitable, given his irreplaceable influence on the artform.  But what proved to be especially surprising was that Chaplain was there to receive the honor for himself.  Mr. Chaplain had for years been blacklisted by Hollywood, because of his support for liberal causes that unfairly labeled him as a Communist agent by the US Government.  Even as the Blacklist was lifted, Chaplain still chose to remain exiled, fearing further mistreatment by the film industry that he helped to build.  But, when news came that the Academy wanted to honor him with an Honorary Award, he decided it was time to reconcile the pain of the past and he returned to America to accept the honor in person.  His return was greeted with a rousing standing ovation from the attendees at that years awards, and he appeared visibly touched by the moment.  After accepting the Award, presenter Jack Lemmon gave Charlie an extra surprise by also presenting him the trademark bowler hat and cane that he used for his famous Tramp character for years.  Chaplain returned the loving gesture by recreating a simple but memorable physical bit with the hat, showing that the master still had a little bit of that playfulness in him all these years later.  Sometimes the Oscars can bring a moment of genuine love for the art of film, and it was a great way to also give a legend like Chaplain the true Hollywood ending he deserved.

1.

THE MOONLIGHT/LA LA LAND INCIDENT (2017)

Through all the years of the Academy Awards, there has never been a moment that has ever been as crazy as this.  Sure there have been unexpected surprises and moments of shock, often from the unpredictability of what happens once that envelope opens.  But, until this Oscar ceremony, everything still went according to plan.  That was until presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage to deliver the last award of the night, Best Picture.  Up to this point, it was just another average Oscar ceremony.  But once the envelope was opened, Warren immediately had a confused look on his face.  The audience thought he was clowning around in order to milk the moment, as did Faye.  She took the initiative and just read the title that she saw on the card and declared the winner to be La La Land (2016).  Now, nobody in the audience was suspicious of anything being wrong; La La Land had long been a heavy favorite for Best Picture, and had already cleaned up throughout the show.  But, as the La La Land team took the stage and delivered their acceptance speeches, the shows producers suddenly stepped in as well.  Then unexpected truth had been revealed; the wrong card had been read, and La La Land didn’t actually win Best Picture.  Thankfully, La La Land’s producer Jordan Horowitz sought to set things right and graciously handed the award to the true winner, Moonlight; a moment of true selflessness that you rarely see happen at these ceremonies.  Warren of course received unfair blame for what happened, and he tried to explain himself on stage; the real culprit for the mix-up was a careless accountant backstage who mistakenly gave Beatty the envelope for Best Actress instead, which went to Emma Stone for La La Land.  Warren and Faye were able to redeem the moment by returning the following year for a do over, which they thankfully got the right envelope for (with The Shape of Water winning).  It’s hard to think that a mix up like this would happen at a ceremony as tightly controlled as the Oscars, and with the biggest award of the night no less, but that’s what happened, and it was a moment that no doubt will never be topped as the craziest moment in Oscars history, as well as it’s most memorable.

Regardless of who wins the awards each year, the thing that makes the Academy Awards such an interesting institution in the film industry is the fact that it is a snapshot in time of what was going on in the evolution of Hollywood over the years.  You can look back on the many different ceremonies of the Academy Awards and see just how much the industry has changed.  More than just the famous faces that come and go throughout the years, we also see a big change in the ways that Hollywood deals with the issues of the day, how they respond to rise and fall of many of their own, and how they try to keep tradition moving on even as the world around the ceremony is constantly changing.  This year in particular will be an interesting chapter added to the overall story of the Academy Awards, as we are about to see an Oscars affected heavily by the pandemic, both in the movies represented and also in the choices of how to present the winners with their award.  It will be interesting to see if this year’s awards have a larger affect on the future of the Oscars, as changes often take hold and leave an impression on the Awards.  Even still, you can still see a common thread throughout Oscars history of change being a good thing, like the increased representation and more tolerant attitudes to movies that fall outside of the norm.  And the fact that the Academy Awards holding itself up as the highest honor the industry can give has not even waned over the years still shows that the Oscars are going to be an important part of movie history for many years to come.   It can be a bit of a stuffy, self-important ceremony that often feels behind the times, but it still offers some unforgettable moments that in themselves contribute to this beautiful and continuing narrative that is the history of the Oscars.  Hopefully this year, we may see even more moments that will stand along with the ones I spotlighted here.  Like the movies they honor, the Oscars are an adventure in of themselves, and one that can really take it’s audience for a wild ride.

Top Ten Movies of 2020

How do we sum up what will undoubtedly be the most chaotic year of our generation.  Apart from all the chaos, one thing that will mark the year that was 2020 was the impact that it had on cinema.  Movie theaters faced near extinction as their doors remained shut and streaming took an even stronger foothold.  And with all that upheaval, the platter of releases that were supposed to mark the previous year all of a sudden were un-moored and moved to the next year, leaving the movie landscape of 2020 pretty barren.  So, when contemplating what would make up a top ten list of the movies of 2020, a critic like me is finding the end result to be a little different than I would have expected from the outset of last year.  For one thing, I had to rely upon streaming a lot more to be able to watch enough movies this year to compile a strong enough list of the year’s best films.  And even with streaming access, I still didn’t watch a number of films that are being touted as Awards season favorites, like Nomadland (2020), Minari (2020), and One Night in Miami (2020), before the end of the year.  So, my top ten list for the year would have probably looked a lot different under other circumstances, especially if there was no pandemic that uprooted so many movies out of their place on the calendar.  Even still, I’m holding to my guideline that only movies that I saw within the year 2020 will be on this list, so the latecomers that will likely big big awards winners will have to wait until my 2021 list to be recognized.  And, one other thing you’ll notice is that streaming movies mostly dominate this years list, though there are a couple that I did also catch in theaters when I was able to.  If there is anything this year taught me is that even when presented with a more convenient streaming at home option, I will still venture out and watch movies on a big screen first, because it’s just my preferred way of first experiencing a new film, even when that option is more difficult.

Before I dive into the list itself, I do want to spotlight the movies that I did enjoy over the year that just missed my top ten.  In no particular order: Emma, Onward, First Cow, Greyhound, Hamilton, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Personal History of David Copperfield, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Ammonite, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984. So, with that out of the way, let me now count down my choices for the top 10 best movies of 2020.

10.

PALM SPRINGS

Directed by Max Barbakow

It’s strange to see the Groundhog Day (1993) scenario become it’s own subgenre over the years, but that’s something that has surprisingly emerged over the last three decades.  Whether it’s used in an action film like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or a horror comedy like Happy Death Day (2017), the premise of living the same day over and over again in an endless loop has proven to be surprisingly malleable.  It’s also a hard plot to get right too, because it requires a lot of plot mechanics to make it work and a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with it all.  Many writers have tried to do this and have failed.  Believe me, I’ve tried to write this kind of script myself.  Palm Springs is another example of the formula done right, and it’s mainly because it puts all the focus on the characters themselves.  The actual reason why the time loop is happening is just a formality, but the movie also surprisingly gives us a clear explanation of how it works too, and it’s not even far fetched.  But what I especially like is that unlike other films of it’s kind, it doesn’t focus on one individual’s struggle to break the loop, but rather it shows multiple perspectives.   One character, played by Andy Samberg (who I’m just as surprised made my best list this year as I was that Adam Sandler made last year’s) has been in the loop a long time and has resigned himself to it, while the other character, played by Cristin Milioti has only just arrived.  Through their shared circumstance, they form a bond and also allow their interactions to shape how they’re going to deal with their predicament, and it makes for a really endearing story.  It’s also very funny, and uses it’s time loop device to great comedic effect, much in the same way that Groundhog Day did too.  In a bleak year such as 2020, Palm Springs was a refreshing bit of sunshine brought to us courtesy of Hulu.

9.

SOUND OF METAL

Directed by Darius Marder

Moving over to Amazon now, we have this fascinating indie drama that brings the audience into the headspace of a man suddenly confronted with a disorder that will forever shape the rest of his life.  Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Venom) plays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who suddenly loses his hearing while in the middle of a multi-city tour with his rock singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke).  With his sudden deafness, he has to enter rehabilitation that will enable him to adjust to a new way of living, but his own self-destructive tendencies make it much harder for him to cope.  It’s a really fascinating character study which Riz Ahmed does a spectacular job of portraying.  His role may run into criticism because he’s another able bodied performer playing someone with a disability, but there is nothing that feels false about his portrayal here, and he is after all playing someone who is newly disabled and trying to readjust.  The rest of the movie’s cast does include real life deaf actors, and its a great bit of exposure for these performers who are often not allowed the opportunity.  But what’s especially brilliant about this movie is the incredible sound mixing, which does simulate exactly what a deaf, or near deaf person’s sense of hearing would be like, and just the emptiness it creates, especially for someone whose life is constantly in the world of sound.  If you listen to this movie through headphones, as I did, you would almost feel the alarming sensation that you’ve lost your hearing as well, and it is illuminating.  Like the best movies that tackle the overcoming of disabilities, this movie treats the condition with the utmost serious and removes the stigma that has often unfairly marginalized people with this condition.  And best of all, it makes us the audience care more about those with the condition itself by putting us in the headspace of one who’s living through his disability and what the world indeed sounds like when all the noise is gone.

8.

TENET

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Truth be told, this movie is a lesser film from one of our current greatest filmmakers, and in another year, this probably might not have made my list at all.  But given this was 2020, and there was a significant lack of blockbuster sized entertainment this year, I do want to recognize Tenet for being the most impressively crafted movie of the year.  Christopher Nolan’s narrative for this film may have been on the convoluted side, but his ability to craft spectacular set pieces are still second to none.  In particular, the way he uses the Inversion gimmick  within the movie, where objects and even people move forwards and backwards through time in the same space, is done to incredible effect.  And like every other movie he’s made, Nolan takes pretty out there concepts and works them into a familiar genre.  Just like how Inception was essentially a heist movie that took place within people’s dreams, Tenet is a spy thriller with a time travel element thrown into the mix. It’s essentially Christopher Nolan’s take on a James Bond movie.  A lot of it may go a little too far over people’s heads, but for me I just enjoyed the ride and in a year like 2020, which took away so many blockbuster thrills that we normally get to enjoy on the big screen, I was just so happy to at least have this one.  It also proved to me the lengths that I would go to so that I could watch a movie like this.  I drove down to San Diego, California (120 miles from where I live) just because it was the closest location that had the movie playing in IMAX.  It may have been a bit too obsessive, but I’m still happy I made the trip because I feel like I would’ve missed out on the ideal experience if I hadn’t.  Watching this on a small TV screen just doesn’t cut it, and Tenet makes a strong case for there to be a return to big screen entertainment again once this pandemic is all over.  Some movies ae just made for the big screen, and though it was a risky gamble this year, I’m glad we were still given the chance to watch Tenet the way it was meant to be seen.

7.

THE INVISIBLE MAN

Directed by Leigh Whannell

This surprisingly effective reimaging of a horror icon had the briefest of theatrical runs early in the year before the pandemic shut down all theaters, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it stuck in my top ten for the year all the way to the end.  This chilling retelling of the H.G. Wells horror classic brings the concept into the 21st century with a clever reversal of perspective.  Instead of focusing on the titular monster himself, the movie actually tells the story through the perspective of one of his victims; in this case, his abused wife.  It’s a reimaging that puts the story firmly in the #MeToo era, and shows a frightening scenario where an abusive husband continues to torment his tortured wife through invisibility and she has a hard time proving that he’s really there and is not losing her mind.  The movie works spectacularly well because of Elizabeth Moss’ unnerving performance.  She perfectly captures a woman on the edge, burned by all the emotional scars of an abusive relationship and the terrified belief that she knows her husband is still stalking her despite not being able to see him.  The movie does a good job of building up that sense of dread around Moss’ character, and it feels exhilarating once she does manage to overcome the monster and gain the upper hand.  It’s a brilliant way to frame the struggle that many people go through when trying to overcome spousal abuse, where the victim is often too afraid to come out with the truth, or is seen as too crazy to be believed.  It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the old Invisible Man narrative, taking the perspective away from identifying with the monster himself, and instead looking at how terrifying it would be to have a really psychotic individual using that kind of power.  Without question the year’s best and most chilling horror movie, and a brilliantly subtle new interpretation on an age old story from the revolutionary horror movie makers at Blumhouse.

6.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

Directed by Jason Woliner

I definitely need to explain something about why I placed this movie here.  Initially in my review of the movie back in October, I gave this Borat sequel a mixed review, knocking a few points for not having the novelty of the original.  But, in retrospect, and after some subsequent re-watches, I may have indeed been a little too harsh on the film.  One thing that really has come into focus for me about the film is that out of all the movies that I have seen this year, if I were to pick one that captured the year that was 2020 in bottle completely, it would be this one.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the definitive 2020 movie.  No other film captured the madness of this year better; whether it was the political turmoil, the widespread effects of the pandemic, or just the absolute lunacy of just the culture at large, it was all captured in this absolutely insane movie.  It is quite remarkable that 14 years after Sasha Baron Cohen turned his goofy little sketch character into a box office smash that he could even attempt to do it again, and deliver something just as hilariously wild.  While some of the stunts don’t quite land as hard as in the original, the movie more than makes up for it with a surprisingly touching narrative of Borat forming a stronger bond with his daughter Tutar, played by newcomer Maria Bakalova in a spectacular breakout role.  It’s their budding relationship that I really think elevates this movie above what it could have been, and makes it really one of the most uplifting movies of the year too, which itself is mind-boggling.  Sure this movie will be remembered for Cohen’s death-defying trolling of a far-right wing rally, or for that now infamous run-in with Rudy Giuliani, but I think the father/daughter storyline is what ultimately will help it soar far beyond it’s place within the madness of 2020.  Even still, it’s a hilarious dissection of the year that was, and miraculous and unexpected comeback for a comedy icon that we honestly didn’t know we needed at this time.

5.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Speaking of politically relevant movies starring Sasha Baron Cohen, we had this exceptional dramatization of one of the most consequential political trials of the Vietnam Era.  Cohen plays the notoriously outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman, who along with 6 other co-defendants, was put on trial for inciting the destructive riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The movie features an exceptional ensemble cast including Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, and Yahya Abdul Mateen II alongside Cohen.  But, the real star of the movie is the exceptionally well written script from Aaron Sorkin.  His screenplay for Chicago 7 is right up there with his best work, and it was a long in the making project for him as well.  Written over the course of 13 years, with directors like Steven Spielberg at various points attached to it, it is probably the most polished and well-constructed of Sorkin’s screenplays.  And even with all those years he had to work on them, the fact that it finally made the light of day this year could not have been more fortuitous.  Sadly, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a timely movie in this tumultuous year, and it reaffirmed the importance of free speech and the right to protest that are key to our survival as a republic, in addition to our faith in a fair justice system.  The movie also marks a strong step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a filmmaker, taking the role behind the camera for only the second time showing much more skill and confidence as a director as a result.  Sure, it’s fairly conventional as trial movies go, and it doesn’t break any new ground cinematically, but man does that screenplay sing beautifully and the cast delivers their performances with an astounding amount of authenticity.   And in a year where we are all trying to collectively understand the right path for our nation, this movie offers a very engaging and sobering history lesson.

4.

WOLFWALKERS

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

In a year that saw Pixar release not one but two movies, even with the turmoil of the pandemic, I too find it shocking that the acclaimed animation giant didn’t land on my top ten for the year, nor did they deliver my favorite animated movie of 2020 either.  Both Onward  and Soul are exceptionally well made and fun movies, don’t get me wrong, but both also felt a notch below what I believe are Pixar at their best, and thus they both missed my list.  What did make it here, however, was an animated movie that took me completely by surprise and left me thoroughly enchanted.  Wolfwalkers is the fourth film from Ireland based Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and it is their most ambitious and artistically rich movie to date.  Whenever you hear someone describe every frame as a painting, this is one of those movies that comes to mind.  Taking inspiration from both medieval Celtic design and English wood carvings, this movie is from beginning to end a painting come to life.  It has been a constant in-house defining style for Cartoon Saloon in past films, but here they take it to another level, almost competing with the likes of Disney Animation at the height of their hand drawn dominance.  The highly stylized animation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) comes instantly to mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers took a bit of inspiration from it when making this.  In an era dominated by computer animation, it’s refreshing to see hand drawn animation still at work somewhere in the world, and done with some sense of ambition.  While Pixar spent the year playing par for the course, Cartoon Saloon swung for the stars, and delivered the most visually and narratively alive animated film of the year.

3.

MANK

Directed by David Fincher

This movie seems like it was made solely to appeal to deep rooted cinephiles like me.  An ode to old Hollywood, dramatizing the creative process that went into the making of what is largely considered to be the greatest movie ever made; Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941).  And sure enough, it worked.  David Fincher’s movie is so heavily detailed in it’s reconstruction of the era that it takes place in, that even the way it’s presented evokes how movies looked back in the 1940’s.  The sound mix makes the movie feel like it’s being played in a large, cathedral like movie house complete with an omnipresent echo (ironic given that it’s a Netflix original).  And though it was shot digitally, it’s been given a grainy texture that evokes old black and white film from the era, complete with reel change markers on the corners of the screen.  If it weren’t for the use of four letter word profanity and contemporary movie stars in the cast, you would swear you were watching a long lost classic from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  But apart from Fincher’s technical wizardry behind the camera, he still manages to tell this richly layered character study of an unsung legend within the history of the industry; screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played with gusto by Gary Oldman).  While showing this incredible whirlwind life journey of Mankiewicz (or Mank as he was often called) as he interacts with legendary power players like William Randolph Hearst, Irving Thalberg, and Louis B. Meyer, the movie also brilliantly captures the process a writer goes through in crafting a story that come from a personal place, even in exorcising his own demons as a result.  Through this we see what went into the crafting of the great American story and show that indeed Herman Mankiewicz was more of it’s author than anyone realized, with his own life being just as cinematic as anything else he could have written.

2.

DA 5 BLOODS

Directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee is ever the troublemaker when it comes to bringing politics to the big screen, but he’s also someone with an unparalled command of the cinematic language as well, making his movies resonate regardless of it’s message and target audience.  With Da 5 Bloods, he finds a universal story about racial identity and the crippling effects of warfare in this incredible story about four Vietnam vets turned treasure hunters.  And it is perhaps his most compelling film since Malcolm X (1992).  With very subtle to overt homages to movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Lee has crafted one of the most compelling character studies of his career, as each of his central characters carry with them some burden put on them from their experience in the Vietnam War, with one in particular never really have been able to shake off the emotional wounds, even decades after the war ended.  Delroy Lindo delivers without a doubt my favorite performance of the year as a deeply unnerved Nam vet named Paul, a MAGA hat wearing hot head who grinds against the other members of his team like flint over a pile of wood.  While some other movies might judge a character like him harshly, Lee surprisingly gives him a great deal of depth, perfectly encapsulating how some people never leave the battlefield and how it often clouds the rest of their life.  The movie also features a touching supporting performance from the late Chadwick Boseman as a fallen soldier that brought the titular 5 Bloods together.  The beloved actors untimely passing shortly after this film’s release now brings a whole new resonance to his performance here, and along with the acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it was a great swan song year for Chadwick as he sadly left us too soon.  And just on a technical level, this is Spike Lee in his prime, making the most of his already definable style, but done so with ambition that had been missing in a lot of his more recent work.  Along with 2018’s Blackkklansman, it’s nice to see Spike Lee getting back to making ambitious, but still revolutionary movies again, and Da 5 Bloods is absolutely him at his very best.

And finally, the best movie of 2020 is…

1.

KAJILLIONAIRE

Directed by Miranda July

Yeah, I know this is a strange choice to make, but, for me this was the most satisfying cinematic experience that I had all year, and I’ll tell you why.  One thing is that I managed to watch this on a big screen during a brief window when movie theaters were open in the LA metro area, which was definitely a bonus.  But more importantly, in a year that was such a sour pill to swallow for so many people this year, Miranda July’s sweet story of adversity was like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Truthfully, there is a bit of buried relevance to what this year was like within the narrative of Kajillionaire that I was not expecting, and I’m sure that Miranda July probably never intended it that way either, but it was still hard to miss.  It’s about a socially stunted young woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) who is dragged around by her scam artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) to basically scab off of other people in order to make a living, until an outsider named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) comes into her life and shows her a different way.  A narrative about freeing oneself from the influence of grifters and con artists and finding renewed purpose in life; gee, I wonder why this resonated in 2020.  Regardless of what meaning I projected onto it, it’s still a beautifully crafted movie with a lot of heart and it just was so refreshing to see something positive for once in this very dark year.  Evan Rachel Wood does a great job of balancing the character of Old Dolio, doing a good job of making her feel real and not a cartoonish creation.  And Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger do a magnificent job of portraying two of the worst parents in cinema history.  Miranda July can sometimes be too aloof as a storyteller, but Kajillionaire is without a doubt her most assured and universally appealing movie to date, and it’s twist and turns are some of the most clever plotting that I’ve seen from a movie this year.  We definitely needed a movie like this in 2020, and hopefully it gets discovered by a wider audience in the years to come.  For this critic, it was the sweet, soothing treat that I sorely was needing in this foul, disgusting year, and I’m grateful that I even got to experience it on a big screen as well.

Of course, there was a lot of bad to go along with the good in 2020, and that’s a bit of an understatement.  Even watching mostly from home I was not immune to being exposed to some bad movies this year.  So, in addition to my best of the year, I also have my Bottom 5 worst movies of the year.

5.   THE TAX COLLECTOR – When disgraced, self-destructive actor Shia LaBeouf is the only good thing in your movie, that’s not a good sign.  This convoluted, Scarface (1983) wannabe is full of tired drug cartel movie clichés and features one of the least charismatic protagonists I’ve ever seen in one of these kinds of movies.  Another low point for the once promising director David Ayer.

4.  DOLITTLE – Robert Downey Jr.’s first foray outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sadly landed with a thud.  I could sense that Downey meant well from the outset in getting this movie made, but somewhere down the line, whether it was questionable creative choices or studio interference, something went horribly wrong.  The animal animation is horrible, the celebrity voices just don’t fit the animal characters they play, the story is dumb, Downey’s Welsh accent makes him hard to understand, and it all just makes the movie too dumb even for toddlers that it’s aiming for as it’s audience.  C’mon Iron Man, you can do a lot better.

3.  ARTEMIS FOWL – First in what I’ll be calling the Good Directors Gone Bad of 2020 part of this list.  Kenneth Branagh is usually a brilliant film director who can work in genres as varied as Comic Book (Thor) or Mystery Thriller (Murder on the Orient Express).  Here however he struggled to launch a franchise based on a popular set of young adult fantasy adventure novels, and what resulted is an undercooked Harry Potter wannabe.  This is probably the laziest film to ever come from the acclaimed filmmaker, who sadly didn’t have Death on the Nile to help cleanse the palette at the end of this year, with that movie moving to 2021.  Thankfully, the movie was quickly buried on it’s subdued release on Disney+, where it was likely spared from a disaster at the box office.  Hopefully Branagh can put this embarrassment behind him and get back to making movies that are better suited for his talent.

2. HILLBILLY ELEGY – Another disastrous turn for an otherwise celebrated filmmaker, Hillbilly Elegy is a new low point for the usually reliable Ron Howard.  Based on the best selling memoir by author J.D. Vance, the movie feels creepily exploitive in the way it portrays it’s lower class characters, in what some critics have called “Poverty Porn.”  It’s the kind of movie that looks attractive as potential Oscar Bait, with actors in a sense uglifying themselves in an attempt to get Awards recognition.  This movie doesn’t have a compelling enough story to pull that off, and instead feels cheap and manipulative.  It’s especially disappointing that it wastes great actors like Amy Adams and Glenn Close in roles that are far beneath their talents.  Movies can be made about the struggles of poor, on the fringe Americans that society has largely forgotten, but this movie definitely adds nothing of worth, and instead just feels like a thirsty plea for Awards season recognition.

And the worst movie of 2020 is…

1. ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES – This updated version of author Roald Dahl’s beloved classic novel is not only bad, it is bafflingly bad.  Considering that this is from Robert Zemekis, the man behind Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994) is shocking, because it is such an amateurish and disturbingly ill-conceived film.  The original 1990 film based on the book featured some incredible puppetry and visual effects from Jim Henson Studios, but this movie not only entirely relies upon an over abundance of CGI, but some of that CGI is used to create some really disturbing imagery.  You thought the cat skin transformation in last year’s Cats (2019) was bad, just wait until you see Anne Hathaway’s transformation into the Grand High Witch in this movie.  It really is the most nightmarish thing I’ve seen in any movie in a long time.  And this is supposed to be a movie geared towards kids.  Without a doubt the most disastrous movie of all of 2020, and that’s saying a lot.  Not even worth watch for free on HBO Max.

So, there you have all my choices for the best and worst of 2020.  Overall, given the limitations that I faced in accessing any amount of movies this year, I still managed to see enough good films to fill out the list.  Again, had the year gone differently, my list would have likely been a lot different, but that’s out of my control.  I do wish that some of those other highly touted end of the year movies had been more widely available; especially Nomadland, as that one is cleaning up with the year end awards so far.  But, despite how the year as a whole went, I’m surprised how little it actually affected my viewing habits.  I still chose to see movies first on the big screen wherever I was available to, and though it has been inconvenient, I still am happy that I managed to be able to do it at all.  Drive-In’s have been a lifesaver for me as a fan of cinema, and for someone who up until this year had never been to a Drive-In movie before, I have since turned into a Drive-In veteran, watching more than a dozen films that way over the last year.  Even some of the exclusive movies from major streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV were given the Drive-In treatment here in the LA metro area, and yes I paid extra money for what I could’ve seen for no extra charge on my streaming accounts.  I am still a dedicated fan of the cinematic experience and probably always will be.  My hope is that we begin to see the theatrical industry start to get back on it’s feet in 2021.  It may be years before it gets back to normal, but once the theater doors begin to open up once again, I’ll happily be one of the first to venture back and show my support.  With the vaccine starting to circulate, and the pandemic’s worst days hopefully behind us, my hope is that we as a society once again see the value in the communal experience of watching a movie together.  It’s the thing that I’m most looking forward to in the new year, and my hope is that everyone else feels the same way too.  We’ve had to compromise a lot in the last year, but my hope is that we come out of it resilient and are able to embrace the things that we love and have missed the most, and hopefully movies the way they are meant to be seen is one of those cherished things that we will fight to preserve in the years ahead.

Top Ten Stephen King Movies

Well, we’ve reached that witching hour of the year again.  Halloween has arrived in a year truly marked with unimaginable real life horror.  As we try to make the most out of our socially distant festivities, I’m sure most people’s favorite Halloween tradition to hold onto this year is watching scary movies. No doubt many people will be watching from the comforts of their home some classics from the horror genre, either for the hundredth time or maybe even the first time.  Whether it’s a slasher, a gothic period ghost story, or just a good old-fashioned monster movie, there are literally thousands of good choices to indulge in at home this Halloween.  No doubt what will end up being a favorite for many are the numerous films that were inspired by the imagination of perhaps the most prolific author of his generation; Stephen King.  King has been an active writer for half a century now, and his bibliography is stacked with best selling classics, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.  King continues to publish at least one new novel every year, showing that even in his more advanced years, he is still a tireless master at his craft.  Though he does write in a variety of other genres, it’s been horror and suspense that he’s made a name for himself, creating some of the most beloved tomes of the genre the literary world has ever seen.  And likewise, these books have provided the inspiration for many film and television adaptations.  For this Halloween, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of the top ten movies based on the work of Stephen King.  I am excluding television adaptations here, but movies that are based on King’s non horror stories will be considered.

These are my own choices, so you may disagree with a few overall.  Here are some noteworthy movies that, while good, didn’t make it into my top ten: Christine (1983), The Running Man (1987), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Apt Pupil (1998), The Green Mile (1999), 1408 (2007), 1922 (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019).  So, with all those out of the way, let’s take a look at my choices for the best movies based on the spooky writing of Stephen King.

10.

GERALD’S GAME (2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan

There has been a recent revival of Stephen King’s work in recent years, with many remakes of past films making it to the big screen in recent years, as well as new adaptations available on streaming channels like Hulu and Netflix.  Streaming in particular has given some of the lesser known Stephen King novels and short stories a chance to shine, as they are less in competition with the blockbusters.  One of the most successful adaptations of a lesser known King story on streaming is this film version of King’s 1992 novel of the same name.  A prime example of simple but effective storytelling, the story is intimate in scope, but builds towards the same kind of disturbing decent into madness that we expect from a King novel.  The movie involves a couple heading to a secluded house deep in the woods of Maine to have a weekend affair.  Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) cuffs his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) to the bed posts as part of a kinky sexual activity.  However, Gerald suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack, and Jessie is left bound to the bed without any means of freeing herself, nor any way of seeking any help as the nearest neighbor is miles away.  As time goes by, and Jessie grows weaker and more desperate, she begins to let the voices in her head take over, and that includes hallucinations of Gerald speaking back at her from the afterlife, reliving childhood trauma, and also receiving a visit from a disturbing ghoul like figure in the night that she calls the “Moonlight Man,” a particularly King-esque addition.  The great thing about Netflix’s adaptation is that it’s not afraid to take it’s time and build it’s atmosphere, which has become a trademark of director Mike Flanagan, who has emerged recently as a stand out in the horror genre, having also done an adaptation of King’s Doctor Sleep as well.  This one is noteworthy because of the way that it absorbs you in a way that you don’t typically see from most King film, or in most horror for that matter.

9.

CREEPSHOW (1982)

Directed by George A. Romero

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have an adaptation of Stephen King’s work that is anything but subtle.  This anthology film combines five short stories by King and presents them loosely tied together as this homage to pulp horror comic books.  Romero of Night of the Living Dead (1968) fame brings his trademark gonzo style and ramps it up to maximum in this bizarre, out of control, and always creepy cinematic experience.  The movie is also noteworthy for being Stephen King’s first active foray into the filmmaking process.  After years of letting his novels be licensed out to other filmmakers, King worked closely with Romero on every aspect of the making of this movie, acting as screenwriter for the first time in his career.  Even more surprisingly, Stephen King even appears on screen in the role of Jordy Verrill, acting for the first time in a part from his own writing.  King would continue to appear in cameos throughout most of the future movies and mini-series based on his novels, but I don’t think any of those will leave an impression as much as his wild performance in this movie.  There are also some standout performances from other legendary actors, including a villainous one from Leslie Nielsen, as well as a disturbingly paranoid one from E.G. Marshall.  George A. Romero also utilizes the comic book aesthetic to great effect, combining some wild visual ideas throughout the movie, both in the way the movie is colored and in how it is framed.  This certainly doesn’t stand as the most chilling, or even scary movie based on King’s stories, but it does represent Stephen King at his most unbound, free to just let loose and put some of the wildest ideas he has on the screen.  It’s Stephen King at his campiest, and for that, it does deserve a special recognition in relation to everything else he’s made.

8.

THE DEAD ZONE (1983)

Directed by David Cronenberg

Though not every Stephen King story is specific to horror, he nevertheless gives the majority of his stories a supernatural element.  Such is the case with The Dead Zone, which is more of a thriller that a scary story.  The story revolves around a man named Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) who awakens from a coma with new pre-cognitive powers that allow him to see into someone’s future after experiencing physical contact with them.  Over time, Johnny uses his powers to help others, but becomes disillusioned when his insights aren’t able to help solve local murders.  He later encounters a controversial political candidate (Martin Sheen) who he envisions becoming president one day and launching a nuclear strike that begins the end times.  It’s a great example of Stephen King working within the paranoia thriller genre.  Johnny’s gift is both a blessing and a curse, as he is able to alter the course of some terrible fates, but over time learns that each action (good or bad) has a consequence, and that he may be doing more harm to the world over time by not allowing fate to play it’s part.  Christopher Walken is very effective in this role, showing Johnny slowly falling apart the more his powers take a toll on his psyche.  But what I especially like is Cronenberg’s stripped back approach to filming this story.  With the cool, haunting photography, Cronenberg fuses the story with this foggy sense of dread, underlining the condition of Walken’s character.  As a result, we feel the paranoia that he feels, because the movie puts us in his headspace, with this detached cold atmosphere all around him.  While it’s not a horror show like what we associate from Stephen King’s other work, it still shows that he can characteristically present a sense of dread in even a story without much horror in it.

7.

THE MIST (2007)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Stephen King is certainly known for his monsters, whether supernatural, spectral, or even human.  But what we learn from a lot of his writing is that it’s not just the typical monstrous creatures on the outside that become a problem for main characters, it’s those that emerge among us that also pose a threat.  In this supernatural thriller, a small coastal town in Maine is shrouded in a mysterious fog that limits visibility in the surrounding area.  Suddenly, emerging out of the mist are giant bug like creatures attacking civilians.  A small band of survivors hold themselves up in a grocery store, but as time goes on and no hope for rescue becomes apparent, the survivors in the store begin to turn on each other.  It’s a great examination of different societal reactions that happen when humanity is pushed to the brink.  It is most apparently shown in the clashing personas of the optimistic everyman played by Thomas Jane and the pessimistic religious zealot played by Marcia Gay Harden.  As hope fades, we see otherwise good people turn into monsters themselves, and show that even a safe haven could be anything but.  At the same time, the movie does an effective job of creating the gloomy atmosphere that pervades every moment of this story.  Frank Darabont, who is no stranger to adapting the works of Stephen King (this being his third go around), manages to craft an adaptation of one of King’s more supernatural works just as well as he had with one of the more grounded ones.  Not only that, he even went beyond what King had originally intentioned, and gave The Mist a much more downbeat, tragic ending than what was in the novel.  The Mist is an unforgettable, and bleak, adaptation of Stephen King’s work that blends together the best of what we’ve come to expect from his writing; a dark, disturbing tale of men vs. monsters, with a bit of sharp social commentary on the human condition as well.

6.

STAND BY ME (1986)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Here is a prime example that not every Stephen King movie needs to be scary.  Though it does revolve around the discovery of a dead body, the story is actually about the coming of age of it’s four central characters.  Told through flashback narration provided by actor Richard Dreyfuss, the movie revolves around four young boys who set out on their own to find the body of a missing child that they’ve heard rumors about.  The four form a bond on the road and create their own little adventure, facing everything from junkyard dogs, to oncoming trains, to even leeches.  There is a charming innocence to this story that you don’t see in most of Stephen King’s other writing, and that’s what makes it such a unique movie in his filmography.  I imagine that with this one, King drew more from his own childhood experience growing up in rural Maine when writing this story, and it is grounded very much in a universal sense of what it was like to be a young boy trying to figure out your own place in the world.  The movie is equal parts heart-wrenching, funny, and ultimately inspiring, which has helped it become a favorite for many audiences across generations.  What especially make the movie work are the unforgettable performances from the four leads, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman, all who feel authentic and relatable as their characters.  In addition, director Rob Reiner, on only his second ever feature, delivers a beautiful looking canvas for this road trip tale, substituting rural Oregon for the Maine of King’s original story.  It is strangely the only film based on Stephen King’s work that you could call “family-friendly,” and indeed, it’s what initially introduced me to Stephen King as kid, even though I wasn’t aware of who King was at that point and what he was know for.  Stand by Me is an evergreen classic story that still holds up over thirty years later, and should still be shared with many more generations to come.

5.

IT (2017) and IT CHAPTER TWO (2019)

Directed by Andy Muschetti

There’s no doubt that if there was any novel in Stephen King’s body of work that would define him as an author, it would be his Bible length classic IT (1986).  First adapted into a 1990 TV mini-series, the book would end up receiving a big screen treatment spread across two parts in recent years, and it led to record breaking box office.  King’s lengthy novel is noteworthy for one thing in particular, and that’s the demon clown Pennywise, who is perhaps the most famous of all of King’s monstrous creations.  He was first brought to life memorably by Tim Curry in the TV mini-series, but Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal is still pretty effective as well.  There’s no doubt that the main attraction in these movie is Pennywise, and director Andy Muschetti does not hold back in making every moment with the demon clown terrifying.  But what really makes the movies stand out is the way it portrays the other main characters in the story, known as “The Losers Club.”  Breaking away from the non-linear format of King’s novel, the two parts of IT wisely focuses each movie on different time periods when the Losers Club encounters Pennywise.  The first shows them in their formative childhood years, while the second takes them to the present where they are all adults.  It helps to make each film stand on it’s own, while at the same time cohesively working together as a full narrative.  The casting for the Losers club, both young and old, is also outstanding, making the connection between these characters across the years feel even more authentic.  Even still, director Muschetti knows he’s working with one of King’s most iconic work, and a great deal of effort was put into making it as expansive and epic as the book itself.  I actually prefer the more tonally consistent second part, but both together certainly stand as one of the most impressive cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

4.

CARRIE (1976)

Directed by Brian de Palma

Of course we can’t talk about Stephen King’s impact on the silver screen without spotlighting the movie that introduced him there in the first place.  Carrie was King’s first ever published novel, released in 1974, and it quickly put him on the map in the literary world.  Naturally, Hollywood took notice and Carrie was quickly picked up by United Artists and handed over to Brian de Palma for adaptation.  Though King wasn’t involved in the filmmaking process, he was nevertheless approving of De Palma’s approach to the story, as it is pretty close to King’s writing.  It doesn’t use the epistolary nature of the novel, but it does retain the point of view of it’s title character, the psychic powered teenager Carrie.  For the most part, De Palma holds back on his flashy style until the very end, when it’s used to spectacular effect.  Perhaps most memorably, he made use of split screen to show Carrie unleashing her powers with a glance to the doors as they close shut.  At that point we see the movie move from a troubling psychological thriller, where the tortured Carrie deals with bullying from school and punishment from her religious zealot mom (played memorably by Piper Laurie), changes dramatically into a terrifying horror show as Carrie finally snaps and lets the monster within out.  A large part of the movie’s success certainly goes to Sissy Spacek, who became an instant star thanks to her performance as Carrie.  Though her more vulnerable moments throughout the movie really show off Sissy’s talents as a actress, it’s that dead eye stare at the film’s fiery climax that really cements her as a horror movie icon.  Though it marked the beginning of a long legacy for Stephen King as a presence in cinema the movie still stands out as a classic and still has the power to fright so many years later.  To this day, it’s finale jump scare, with the hand reaching out of a grave, still has the power to leave movie-goers spooked out of their wits.

3.

MISERY (1990)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Though Rob Reiner managed to successfully bring one of Stephen King’s more upbeat and life-affirming stories to the big screen a few shot years before with Stand by Me, he was also not afraid of tackling something far more dark from the mind of the author.  Misery almost feels like a window into Stephen King’s own personal fears.  And what appears to frighten Stephen King is being trapped all by yourself by a rabid fan of your work.  That’s the situation that he puts romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in when a car accident leaves Paul stranded in the middle of nowhere and left in the care of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who takes her fandom of Paul’s novels to the extreme.  Though James Caan is excellent in his role, the movie definitely belongs to Kathy Bates, whose performance was so strong in the movie that it launched her to a very well deserved Oscar win.  Her performance really is an incredible tour de force of character construction.  She manages to balance the wild mood swings of Annie Wilkes, with her sweet matronly tone giving way to manic paranoia merely moments apart, and never once makes it feel unnatural or out of character.  I think that’s what makes Annie Wilkes such a terrifying villain; the fact that you don’t know exactly which side of her you’re going to face at any moment.  Bates’ performance honestly is probably the best one ever seen in a Stephen King movie, and she has the gold to back that up.  And a lot of credit goes to Reiner for not holding anything back either.  This movie is as dark as anything else we’ve seen from a King movie, and the hobbling scene in particular still stands as one of the most horrifying ever put on screen.  We now know what scares the master of horror, and with a character as vividly brought to life as Annie Wilkes, she becomes our terror as well.

2.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Frank Darabont has in total made 3 movies based on the works of Stephen King, including The Mist and The Green Mile.  But there is no doubt that his greatest King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption.  Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982), Shawshank is the film adaptation that feels the least like anything we know to expect from Stephen King.  It’s not supernatural, it’s not a psychological thriller.  It’s about inmates in a prison trying to hold onto their humanity behind bars.  And yet, Darabont took Stephen King’s short story and crafted it into not just a faithful adaptation, but into a film that nowadays is considered to be among the best of all time.  No doubt it is helped by the collaborative efforts of some of the greatest technical artists of their generation behind the scenes, like the masterful cinematography from Roger Deakins or the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman.  And then of course, the unforgettable performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, whose courses in life are forever altered by their connection made in prison.  While most of the movie is a melancholy examination of the way that imprisonment breaks down the humanity of those it keeps behind bars, and shows the unfathomable cruelty of those left in charge of all those souls, it surprisingly ends on a positive note, with Robbin’s Andy Dufresne outsmarting the system and escaping the prison that had stolen his life.  The way it plays out is enough is so pleasing, with the discovery of the tunnel behind a poster, to Dufresne’s triumphant escape in the pouring rain.  It is cinematically exhilarating, and strangely out of character for the normally downbeat Stephen King.  But, it’s that conquering the darkness of ordinary evil in our society that has made the movie so enduring and lifted it to become a classic for all time.

1.

THE SHINING (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Was there any doubt this would be here.  Naturally, to find the greatest cinematic adaptation of a Stephen King novel, look no further than the one made by one of the greatest movie directors of all time.  Interestingly enough, one of the most vocal critics of this acknowledgement would be Stephen King himself.  King has been adamant over the years about his displeasure over Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, at times even stating that he outright hated it.  His tone regarding the movie has softened over time, stating that he does respect what Kubrick did as a filmmaker, while still objecting to the changes that he made.  But, even if you agree with King’s assessment, there is no denying that The Shining is one of the most terrifying and artfully crafted horror movies ever made.  Sure, Kubrick did change a lot of what King wrote, but the essentials are still there, and what Kubrick added are brilliant in their own right.  There still is nothing more terrifying today than seeing those creepy twin girls appear at the end of a hallway, and that’s just one of the many terrors in the movie.  What is especially effective about the movie is the fact that Kubrick disobeys one of the fundamental rules of horror filmmaking and has most of the movie brightly lit.  Usually horror movies allow shadows to hide most of the terror in the dark, but when there are no shadows anywhere to be seen in a bright hallway, it makes all the more terrifying when something scary does appear.  Jack Nicholson of course is brilliant in his unhinged performance, and Kubrick infuses every frame with a sense of inevitable dread.  Not to be forgotten, Stephen King’s original novel is still a brilliant piece of horror itself.  Kubrick made the movie he wanted to make, and though it is different in many ways, it is no less terrifying.  They are both iconic pieces of art and stand out as the best that their genre has to offer.  King’s novel is great, but Kubrick’s film is arguably more terrifying, and that says a lot.

In a career spanning 50 years, it’s amazing that we still haven’t reached the end of Stephen King’s complete body of work.  The man is a tireless writing machine that keeps churning out new stories almost at the rate of one a year, which is astounding.  Of course, his bread and butter is the horror genre, but he certainly has left his mark on other genres as well.  It’s interesting that throughout as long of a career as he has had that his novels have inspired film adaptations from some of the greatest filmmakers who have ever been in the business.  He can boast having icons such as George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Brian de Palma, David Cronenberg, and Stanley Kubrick behind the movies based on his books.  He can also boast having the highest grossing horror movie of all time be based his novel, IT.  But, even with all that success, it doesn’t distract away from his ability to keep on writing.  He is able to churn out new original novels faster than any other writer of his generation, and though he often does rely upon repeating tropes (alcoholism, religious persecution, the state of Maine) he still manages to give each story a sense of uniqueness.  Amazingly, even after nearly 40 years of movie and TV adaptations, there are still countless other Stephen King works that have yet to be adapted.  We are likely to be seeing plenty more films and shows based on King’s novels in the years to come, and with King still writing today, the well will not be going dry any time soon.  So, for a good time this Halloween, find yourself a good horror film from the countless ones based on King’s books, or find a copy of one of his widely published novels and start reading from the man’s own words.  Stephen King is an icon perfectly suited for this time of year, and the movies I spotlighted above certainly show how much his imagination has meant to the art of cinema, especially in the realm of terror.