MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Terry Jones
CAST: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 96% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Controversial Film”

PLOT: Born on the very first Christmas in the stable next door to Jesus Christ, Brian of Nazareth spends his life being mistaken for a messiah.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Let the record show this was originally going to be a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but the author had just seen 2 or 3 dramatic films in a row and apparently decided it was time to switch gears a bit.  Complaints about this adjustment may be directed to the author’s colleague, Marc Sanders, who promises to reply to each and every complaint at about the same time hell freezes over. ]


Life of Brian is widely considered Monty Python’s tightest, most well-written film, even if it’s not quite as hysterically funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I agree.  I can speculate that this is due to the subject matter, and so great care needed to be taken to ensure that viewers would not mistakenly think the film was poking fun at the Jesus Christ Himself.  On the contrary, right from the very opening, it’s quite clear this movie is not about Jesus, but about the poor sod who was born in the stable next door and the deluded individuals who continually mistake HIM for a messiah as a grown man.  (“…how shall we f*** off, oh lord?”)

But that didn’t stop the mighty train of offensensitivity from rolling right along.  To wit:

  • Norway banned the film for a year.
  • Ireland banned it until 1987.
  • A town in Wales banned it until 2009, after a cast member was elected Mayor.
  • A town in Britain banned it until 2015.

However, no amount of bans and protests could prevent Life of Brian from becoming an integral part of the cinematic comedy landscape.  At the annual Venice Film Festival, the Premio Brian (Brian Award) is awarded to the most rationalist/atheist movie presented at the festival.  It was named the funniest comedy of all time by the BBC’s Channel Four, beating out Groundhog Day and The Full Monty.  In 1982, during the Falklands War, sailors aboard a severely damaged British vessel started singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” while awaiting rescue.  You can’t BUY that kind of publicity.

After a brief prologue in which the Three Wise Men visit the wrong manger by mistake (“We were led by a star!”  BRIAN’S MOTHER: “Led by a bottle, more like!”), we jump ahead to when Brian is just about Graham Chapman’s age, struggling to hear the Sermon on the Mount from a distance (“Blessed are the cheesemakers?!”).  Much like Holy Grail, the film is punctuated by sketches, some of which are pauses in the action, but most of which still manage to carry the story forward.  That’s quite a feat when you consider their subsequent film, The Meaning of Life, was composed entirely of self-contained sketches, albeit with a common theme.  The fact that the Pythons were able to rein themselves in and keep things relatively lean is rather admirable.

If I kept relating plot developments and summaries of sketches and funny quotes, I would be here all day:

  • The “Biggus Dickus” scene.
  • The stoning.
  • The unexpected Latin lesson.
  • “What have the Romans ever given us?”
  • Graham Chapman’s willy.  (Hey, it’s a memorable scene, shut up.)

If I must be honest, though, I was never, and still am not, a fan of the film’s ending.  Yes, I get the supreme, absurd irony of the situation juxtaposed with that cheerful song, but…to be honest, it’s always felt like the Pythons said, “Okay, so we’re here, aaaaand…now what?  Any ideas?  No?  Okay, let’s end the movie.”  Perhaps they always meant to end it that way.  So be it.  But I’m selfish.  I wanted just a little more.  …although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure what kind of mileage you could get out of a bunch of people at a tomb waiting for someone to emerge, but never does.  There’s a joke there, somewhere, but I’m not the one to tell it.

There is one scene that I found VERY interesting.  It never stood out before, but it does now.  People are fond of saying, “Well, you could never make Blazing Saddles today.”  Perhaps, but I bet the chances are even slimmer of someone trying to make Life of Brian today, and even if someone did, the scene in question would probably not make it to the final cut.

Picture this: Four members of the People’s Front of Judea (NOT to be mistaken for the Judean People’s Front…those splitters) are trying to decide something when one of the male members, Stan, reveals he wants to be a woman and asks everyone to start calling him “Loretta.”  The others ask him why, and he says, “I want to have babies…It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them!”  “But you can’t HAVE babies!” retorts Reg, “you haven’t got a WOMB!  Where’s the fetus gonna gestate, you gonna keep it in a box?!”  They eventually agree that Stan/Loretta can’t actually HAVE babies, but they will fight for his RIGHT to have babies.  “It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression!”  (“…symbolic of his struggle against reality…” grumbles Reg.) [Ed. note: view the full scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlo7YZW8vPA ]

If you ask me, in today’s society, if that scene were to appear in a contemporary film, even in an obviously comic context like this one, it would become an even bigger controversy than “Nipplegate.”  Forget about all the religious overtones and perceived (but non-existent!) blasphemy.  All it would take is for one person to call that scene out, and Monty Python would be on the road to social cancellation faster than you can say, “Carla’s your uncle.”

ANYWAY.  As a lifelong fan of the Pythons, I consider Life of Brian their high-water mark in terms of storytelling and contextual comedy.  If it’s not quite as funny as Holy Grail, well, I ask you, what is?  Any arguments about the movie being blasphemous are easily deflated by pointing out it’s not about Jesus.  It’s about this other idiot and the group-thinking idiots who follow him.  Case closed.


QUESTION FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Best line or memorable quote:
(Talk about being spoiled for choice…it’s a little out of context, but if you know, you know:)
“He has a wife, you know.  Do you know what she’s called?  Incontinentia.  …Incontinentia Buttocks.”

After watching the film, can you see both sides of the controversy surrounding it?
I can acknowledge that two sides exist (or existed), but the anti-Brian argument is pointless because, once again for the cheap seats, the movie is not about Jesus.  It can’t be blasphemous if it barely even mentions His name.  My two cents.

TENDER MERCIES (1983)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
CAST: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin
MY RATING: 8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 84% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie that Won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay”

PLOT: A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.


Tender Mercies does not feel like a movie that was released the same year as WarGames, Octopussy, and Return of the Jedi.  It has more in common with the spare, character-driven films of the early ‘70s like Five Easy Pieces [1970] and The Last Picture Show [1971].  It’s a movie where not much seems to happen, at least on the surface.  Underneath the barren landscapes and big skies, however, great truths about life and acceptance are on display.

Anchored by an Oscar-winning performance from Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies tells the story of Mac Sledge (Duvall), whom we see at the opening of the film collapsing in a drunken stupor on the losing end of a fight in a rinky-dink roadside motel in rural Texas.  The next morning, broke and abashed, he makes an arrangement with the widowed motel owner, Rosa Lee (Harper): he’ll do odd jobs at the motel for room, board, and $2 an hour.  Rosa Lee’s son 10-year-old son, Sonny, watches this situation unfold impassively and asks Mac some very direct questions: “Did you used to have money?”  “How’d you lose it?”  “You think my dad would’ve liked you?”

The filmmakers (directed by Bruce Beresford, Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, who also wrote the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]) make some interesting choices for everything that follows.  There is a gentle scene between Mac and Rosa Lee where he shyly asks her, “You ever think about gettin’ married again?”  She says she has.  “Would you ever think about marryin’ me?”  She says she will think about it.  And in the very next scene, it’s made clear that time has passed, they got married, and have been married for several months.  In another film, that kind of “condensed storytelling” would go into the negative column in my book, but not here.  Instead, it feels…right.  We don’t need to show any further details of their courtship, their wedding, Sonny’s feelings about it one way or the other, etcetera.  Those extra scenes would have delayed the narrative structure, showing us things we don’t need to see, but which we can easily deduce.

There’s another scene (I’ll try to tread lightly here) where Mac gives a heartfelt, but still masterfully underplayed, speech to Rosa Lee about how he was in a bad drunk driving wreck years before, and how God saw fit to bring her into his life, but to do so meant her husband had to die, and so on.  “See, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did, I never will.”

When he finished, and Rosa Lee stood there taking it in, in my head, I imagined her replying with something like, “Well, Mac, you don’t have to trust happiness, you just have to trust me”, or “yourself”, or some similarly corny platitude.  Instead, in what must have been superhuman restraint on the part of the screenwriter, Rosa Lee simply stands there, processes what she just heard…and walks offscreen, leaving Mac alone with his thoughts.

That was a big moment for me.  It seemed to me to be a gesture from the filmmakers that this is not a movie about processed dialogue and ancient story arcs and the kind of emotional beats you might expect from a film.  Instead, it felt like I was looking at real people, reacting realistically to real dialogue.  Rosa Lee could have drawn the scene out, but instead she seems to realize there is nothing she can say that will make things better for Mac.  She loves him, but she knows this is something he’ll need to work out for himself, and no amount of sermonizing will help him towards that goal.  It’s a small moment, and it doesn’t occur until late in the film, but it’s this moment that convinced me Tender Mercies had a lot to say in between the pauses and transitional shots of country roads and straight horizons.

There is a lot more to the story, but the film presents very little of it with the kind of forward momentum we’ve come to expect as moviegoers.  Instead, we are treated to new developments almost as if we are intruding on these people and their lives.  Even in a scene at a crowded Opry house where we see Mac’s previous wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley!), belting some good old-fashioned, Parton-esque country tunes, the shot choices and editing still feel almost like we’re voyeurs as we watch Mac listening to one of Dixie’s ballads, then leaving, not quite in disgust, but clearly uncomfortable.  It’s in the aftermath of this concert we get the first solid information on his estranged daughter (Barkin), who would be about 18 years old by now.  Dixie screams at Mac, “She doesn’t remember you!  All she remembers is a mean drunk!”  This scene was so well-realized that I started having flashbacks to some of the fights my own parents got into before their divorce.

I don’t mean to suggest the movie does not have an arc.  It absolutely does.  But Tender Mercies does such a good job of “burying the lead” that I didn’t fully get what the movie wanted to say until the very last scenes featuring two characters tossing a football back and forth.  Mac’s life seems to be back on track.  His music career seems about to be resurrected.  Mac might still have trust issues when it comes to happiness.  Perhaps all we can do is appreciate the small moments of happiness we have while we can.  If sadness or tragedy comes, let it come.  It will hurt for a time, but it will also make those small moments all the more precious.

If that sounds clichéd, well, maybe it is.  Tender Mercies does a much better job of delivering that message than I could ever do, proving once again: a movie is not about what it’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.


QUESTION FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Unless you read the script, you can only judge a screenplay by the movie. Based on the movie, do you feel this script deserved the award for Best Screenplay? Explain.
Great question!  For the record, the other nominees that year were the screenplays for The Big Chill, Fanny and Alexander, Silkwood, and WarGames (that last one kinda surprised me).  I am a little surprised Tender Mercies edged out The Big Chill, a movie with far more prominence than this little Texas character study from an Australian director, but I would say Tender Mercies certainly deserved the award based on the movie by itself.  Much like Lost in Translation [2003], the screenplay relies more on silences and context to deliver its message rather than on showy dialogue or melodramatic plot developments (to be fair, there is one sort-of melodramatic plot twist in Tender Mercies, but it’s handled so well it doesn’t play that way).  Sure, Tarantino and Sorkin might deliver high-quality screenplays that are flashier and certainly wordier, but to craft such a high-quality film in such a minimalist style is admirable and deserves recognition.

NOPE (2022)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Jordan Peele
CAST: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun, Keith David
MY RATING: 7/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Residents of a lonely gulch in inland California bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery.


After watching Nope, the third feature from Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), I found myself curiously unable, or unwilling, to sit down and write a review for it.  What more can I add, I thought, to the volumes that have already been written about it?  What insights can I share that aren’t revealed in the making-of documentary on the Blu-ray?  How can I analyze a movie that can literally be boiled down to, “What if Close Encounters turned into Jaws?”  What good would it do to figuratively take this movie apart and critique its individual components?  It’s a roller-coaster, pure and simple, much like Jurassic Park III [2001].  How do you review a roller-coaster ride and try to compare it to other roller-coaster rides in terms of a review?

“I found the first hill of Rip-Ride Rocket much more intense than the slingshot approach of Hulk or Rock-N-Rollercoaster, but each has something to offer in terms of inversions, smoothness, and on and on and on…”

It just feels pointless, for reasons that are proving themselves difficult to pin down.  So, instead of a “normal” review, here are random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The “true” nature of the UFO – oops, sorry, UAP, I had to look that up – stretched my disbelief suspension to the limit, but I will admit, it’s certainly original.  I can’t think offhand of any other movie or book I’ve watched or read that even considered that explanation for all those unexplained sightings in the books.  Once that was established, every successive appearance of the “spacecraft” became even more ominous and/or menacing.
  • I loved how the movie is littered with clues or easter eggs that either give a hint to the film or sort of comment on what we’ve seen before.  There is an early scene when OJ (Kaluuya) and Em (Palmer) are walking outside with a magnificent setting sun behind them behind the clouds, and hand to God, I remember noticing one particular cloud that looked…off.  Also, there’s another scene when a horse runs off and OJ watches it through the gaps of a wooden shed, and the visual impression is that of a zoetrope, the machine that made the opening images of the running horse possible.  Or even look at the screenshot at the top of this article…quick! What does that lampshade look like to you?
  • There was something about the design of the UAP that bugged me throughout the movie, not necessarily in a bad way, but it just seemed weird.  Why would something that is [SPOILER REDACTED] need what looks like fabric when seen up close?  Is it a sail?  That seems most likely.  In the latter stages of the movie, the “anomaly” doesn’t seem quite as mobile or speedy as it did when its “sail” was intact.  It’s an interesting design concept.
  • One of the scariest moments for me had nothing to do with the UAP itself.  It’s the scene in the exhibition area where the lights seem to be turning on by themselves.  The payoff for the scene seems predictable in hindsight, but as the scene progressed, I was BESIDE myself.  You can ask my best friend, Marc, who watched it with me.  When that shapeless mass by the light switch suddenly started to “unfold”, I echoed OJ: “Nope!  Gotta go, goodbye!”  It is a brilliantly executed scene.
  • I’ll need to watch the movie again to fully understand how that little parachute managed to scare off the UAP.  I assume it has to do with actual horse training, and with some research I could find the answer myself, but the movie does very little to explain it to the viewer.  Or maybe it does.  Like I said, I need to watch it again.
  • I loved how the flashback with the chimpanzee seems utterly incongruous at first.  And I loved how creepy and horrifying it is.  It’s a brilliant framing device (if I’m using that term right) that kept me guessing as to its real purpose right up to the end, or CLOSE to the end.  And did I mention how horrifying it is?  That moment when it’s resting…and then looks RIGHT AT THE CAMERA…chilling.
  • Someone somewhere had said that Keke Palmer was robbed of an Oscar nomination.  With all due respect to Ms. Palmer…she did an admirable job, but I didn’t see anything in the film that would have had me reaching for my Oscar ballot.  But I will give her props for her opening speech to that film crew.  The special features on the Blu-ray reveal that she delivered MANY different variations (fourteen, according to IMDb), much like you see so many other actors do in broad comedies, just to find the exact right version or take.
  • Much like Us, Nope feels like it bit off a little more than it could chew when it comes to the resolution of the film.  Everything leading up to the last 10 minutes or so is gangbusters, honestly, even the silver-helmet guy.  But as everything started to wrap up, I began to feel as if I’d seen all this before, just in different ways, in many different films.  Perhaps I’m being unfair.  Perhaps I’m criticizing the movie for what it isn’t instead of reviewing what it is.  I don’t know.  As it is, also like Us, Nope is one helluva roller-coaster ride that ends, not with a bang, but with a “pop.”
  • Allow me to shamelessly quote Roger Ebert, again: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.”

EXPLORERS (1985)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Joe Dante
CAST: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller
MY RATING: 7/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 72% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Family-Friendly Film”

PLOT: Three friends try to unravel the mystery of these strange dreams they’ve all been having, at the same time.


I’m probably biased, but one of the best times to be a teenaged movie fan had to be the 1980s.  In the wake of his stupendous earlier successes, Steven Spielberg began to produce movies, letting other directors do the heavy lifting while he contributed behind the scenes.  This led to Gremlins, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, and of course, Back to the Future.  All in a two-year period.  Awesome.

In an attempt to replicate the success of these box-office favorites, director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) presented a film unabashedly aimed at its target audience, starring a cast of unknown, but immensely likable, teenagers, including two young men making their Hollywood debut: Ethan Hawke and a nerded-up River Phoenix.  While Explorers lacks the polish and sophistication of its predecessors, it is undeniably charming and, for a while at least, even a little spooky, even if the ending flies spectacularly off the rails.

Ben Crandall (Hawke) is a teenage kid obsessed with 1950s sci-fi movies.  He’s been having these strange dreams filled with what look like electrical schematics.  He draws these pictures as best he can and shows them to his best friend, Wolfgang (Phoenix), a science prodigy.  Ben also makes friends with Darren (Jason Presson), the stereotypical kid-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks, and brings him along when Wolfgang decides to turn on the machine he built using Ben’s drawings.

What this machine eventually enables them to do is fly around inside a converted Tilt-a-Whirl car using an Apple II computer to steer.  (Did I mention this was made in 1985?)  One night, though, a phantom signal takes control of their little craft and starts sending it up, up, up…into space?  I wouldn’t dream of saying.

As a fourteen-year-old kid watching this movie, I strongly identified with the idea of receiving a message from space, not to mention being able to fly in a makeshift spaceship.  To say I envied those kids on screen is a monumental understatement.  Their dialogue may not have been as refined as it could have been, and the sub-plot about Ben’s crush on the “gorgeous blonde” in his class is a little ham-handed (not to mention that plot point never really goes anywhere), but I didn’t care.  SPACE, man!  Just imagine being able to go to SPACE!  What a bunch of lucky kids!

Well, naturally, after a couple of false starts, the three of them actually make it to space, where they have a close encounter of the…goofy kind.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.  You see, the aliens who were sending these schematics have been listening to and watching decades worth of TV signals.  So that’s how they communicate with our heroes.  Close Encounters it ain’t.  And the way these aliens look…any sense of wonder at being in space and communicating with an alien species gets torpedoed by the fact these guys look like a kid’s version of an alien.  Even Ben realizes something’s amiss when he says, “They don’t make any sense.”

So, yeah, Explorers is no Contact.  But let’s be fair, it was never meant to be.  Sure, it does kind of lead you down that garden path, but the final reels leave you in no doubt that this is sci-fi comedy, not drama.  It has not aged as well as its Spielberg-produced contemporaries.  But I watch it today, and I still get that little thrill of discovery when they turn that machine on for the first time.  And flying around in a spaceship that you built?  Who wouldn’t find that idea exciting?  Am I right?


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Which character were you most able to identify with or connect with?  In what way?
Shoot, are you kidding?  Ben, played by Ethan Hawke.  He was my age at the time.  Loved movies.  Loved sci-fi.  Wanted to be an astronaut.  Had a crush.  (Christine Day.  Went to my church.  Red hair.)  And also thought those aliens at the end made no sense.  Man, that was ME.

What elements do you feel are necessary to create an entertaining family-oriented film?  Do you feel this movie had those things?
Explorers has everything necessary to create an entertaining family-oriented film…in the first half.  The second half goes for easy laughs and cheapens what could have been something wondrous.  Alas.

TÁR (2022)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Todd Field
CAST: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Mark Strong, Allan Corduner
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 91% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A renowned composer/conductor’s career and personal life take an unexpected turn after she embarks on a project to make a live recording of a prestigious, difficult symphony by Mahler.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW…BE WARNED]


In his invaluable book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet wrote: “Movies are very powerful.  You’d better have a lot to say if you want to run over two hours.”

I found myself remembering that quote as Tár began with three long scenes spanning 35 minutes of running time, in a film that runs 2 hours and 38 minutes.  In the first scene, a man interviews Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a prestigious and fiercely intelligent composer/conductor in a field traditionally dominated by men.  That scene runs at least ten minutes and is full of esoterica about composers, conducting, music theory, etcetera.  It’s wonderfully shot and acted…but despite my fanboy-level of admiration for Cate the Great, I started to wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?”

There is the briefest of breaks.  The second long scene takes place in a restaurant as Tár lunches with a colleague who seems interested in conducting as well, but who is not quite at Tár’s level…and she knows it, AND she never quite lets him forget it.  This scene is also filled with jargon and musical references that I didn’t quite get, but I found it interesting because here, Tár is no longer “performing” for the interviewer.  She’s more herself.  And she reveals herself to be, not only a tad self-involved, but also coldly calculating and decisive in her words and actions.

And then…the third scene.  Tár is teaching a class in music conducting at Juilliard.  In an astonishing unbroken take that lasts at least ten minutes, if not more, she demonstrates a mastery of the subject matter, but again reveals herself to be more overbearing and arrogant than we saw her at the top of the film.  One of her male students reveals he doesn’t care for Bach because he was a cis white male whose sexual proclivities resulted in 20-some-odd children.  In a wonderfully roundabout way, she asks him what Bach’s personal life has to do with chords and key changes.  It’s a brilliant dismantling of so-called “cancel culture,” though I’m not sure how much water her argument holds when it comes to, say, politicians or musicians espousing Nazism.  But it’s food for thought.

It’s that third scene that finally hooked me, and I was with Tár the whole rest of the way.  It was almost like an overture in three separate movements.  Given the subject matter, that can hardly be a coincidence.

I was not a literature major, but to a relative layman like me, Tár resembles nothing less than a Shakespearean tragedy.  It’s an intimate story told on a grand stage.  A towering figure, powerful, intelligent, passionate, makes questionable decisions based on her ego, her hubris, and her inability, or unwillingness, to allow humility into her life. Writer/producer/director Todd Field (making his first feature film since 2006) shoots his film in what appears to be mostly natural light, lending a Kubrickian feel to virtually every shot.  This enhances the film in a way that I can’t describe accurately…you’ll have to watch the movie to see what I mean.  The result is a movie that, yes, is “Oscar-bait”, but it’s too easy to dismiss it that way.  Tár stayed with me mentally the way only one other movie in the last few years has done: Hereditary.  The two could not be more different story-wise, but they both have a marvelous visual quality that, when combined with the dialogue and superlative acting, gives the impression of something pulsing beneath the surface.  This is top-notch filmmaking.

Throughout the movie, there are hints that, in spite of (or BECAUSE of) her meteoric rise to the lofty heights of her profession, there were casualties along the way.  These casualties seem to be haunting Tár in subtle ways.  Early in the film, we get glimpses of a woman with red hair.  Who is she?  We’re not told; she eventually disappears.  Tár receives an anonymous gift that, upon opening, she immediately throws into the trash.  What was the inscription?  On her morning jog through a tree-filled park, she hears blood-curdling screams, but she is unable to find the source.  (Easter egg alert: the screams were actually taken from the soundtrack of The Blair Witch Project…kinda cool.)

As Tár went on, I was continually fascinated, but I found myself coming back to that Lumet quote and asking: What is this movie saying?  What is Todd Field getting at?  That people in power should be more careful of how they treat others, especially friends and lovers?  Not exactly breaking news.  But as with so many other movies, it’s not WHAT the movie is saying, but HOW it’s saying it.  The movie’s length allows us to sort of settle into the routine of Tár’s life with her partner, her loyal assistant, her adopted child, her piano, her rehearsals, her infatuation with the new cellist, etcetera, so that when something out of the ordinary happens, you sit up and take notice.

As fate would have it, I recently sat down to watch another movie with a similar strategy: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 1975 Belgian film that just recently won the top spot in Sight and Sound’s decennial critics’ poll.  For three hours, we observe a single mother going through the motions of “everyday” life – cooking, cleaning the house, feeding her teenage son, and daily assignations with men who pay her for sex.  The strategy of the movie is to establish the heroine’s routine drudgery so that when the smallest element is out of place, it takes on extraordinary meaning.

In my humble opinion, I believe Tár takes that strategy, refines it, and presents it for a more contemporary audience, take it or leave it.  For me, it worked.  The more I think about it, the more impressed I get.  I have a general rule about disliking movies with unlikable characters in the lead, but there are so many exceptions nowadays I’m thinking of demoting it to a guideline instead of a rule.  Cate Blanchett’s Tár is in every single scene of the film, and she has the trappings of being a fascinating dinner guest, but she is not someone I would want to be friends with.

Take her relationship with her assistant, played by Noémie Merlant (whom you may remember as the lead in Portrait of a Lady on Fire).  One day the assistant finds herself in line for a promotion.  Tár gives the promotion to someone else for her own petty reasons, and when the assistant resigns, Tár immediately resorts to anger and fury.  She has a revealing line where she says something to the effect of, “She KNOWS how much I depend on her!  She did this on purpose!”  Tár is so clueless about how terribly she treats people around her, she doesn’t even realize it when she accidentally admits how much she needs her assistant.  This is not a nice person.

This makes her tragic story arc fairly satisfying.  She begins to imagine phantom noises in her apartment at night.  Some are explained away; others aren’t.  An off-camera suicide occurs, and she is summoned to a deposition.  The press gets hold of the story, and suddenly she finds herself in the process of becoming cancelled, which makes her opening teaching session that much more ironic.

I’m rambling at this point.  I’m trying desperately to get my feelings of the movie across without giving too much of the plot away.  This was a thoroughly enjoyable character study, shot and written and performed in a way that made every moment impactful and mesmerizing.  As a fan of classical music, I LOVED the scenes where she conducts a German orchestra.  She has a speech about how a conductor must literally obliterate herself in the service of the music, and I found that equally applicable to stagecraft.  There is so much to like in this movie it’s difficult to know where to start or how to finish.

What is Tár telling us that is so important that it takes 2-and-half hours to tell?  Maybe it’s something different for everyone.  Maybe the better question is: What does it tell you?

A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Richard Attenborough
CAST: Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Maximilian Schell, Elliott Gould, Denholm Elliott, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, and MANY others
MY RATING: 7/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 63% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie Set During an Historic War”

PLOT: A detailed account of an overly ambitious Allied forces operation intended to end the war by Christmas of 1944.


In September of 1944, in an attempt to land a finishing blow to Germany following D-Day, Allied forces launched Operation Market Garden, a bold offensive that would drop over 30,000 soldiers behind enemy lines.  The objective was to capture and hold three strategic bridges in the Netherlands, over which a massive column of British tanks would then roll straight into the Ruhr, the heart of Germany’s industrial complex.  Neutralize the Ruhr, and taking Berlin would be inevitable.  However, as with so many other simple plans in history, multiple factors led to the operation getting bogged down at the third bridge, and after massive Allied casualties, the offensive was abandoned.

Based on a bestselling novel by Cornelius Ryan (who also wrote the novel The Longest Day), the movie of A Bridge Too Far resembles the actual Operation Market Garden, not just in appearances, but also in its ambition, scope, and ultimate failure to achieve its goal.  However, as a pure combat movie, I give it credit where it’s due.

First off, look at this cast.  There had not been an assemblage of so many of Hollywood’s leading men since 1962’s The Longest Day (“42 International Stars”, that movie’s posters proclaimed).  Naturally, most of the actors are pitch perfect in their roles, with one glaring exception.  Whoever thought Gene Hackman was just the right guy to play a Polish general was either desperate or foolhardy, or both.  Hackman is a talented actor, without question, but his attempt at a Polish accent is a MAJOR distraction from whatever he’s saying.  Every once in a while, it even pulls a disappearing act, not that it matters.

ANYHOO.  The all-star cast.  To offset the lengthy running time, the story is told in semi-episodic fashion, which makes me wonder if someone hasn’t thought about rebooting this movie as a Netflix/HBO/streaming miniseries.  I’d watch it.  Within each of these episodes, it helps if we remember right away that Michael Caine is the leader of the tank column, Sean Connery is heading up one of the ground units, Anthony Hopkins is holding the bridge at Arnhem, and Elliot Gould is the cigar-chewing American trying to get a temporary bridge put together, and so on.  It’s a rather brilliant way of using visual shorthand to keep the audience oriented during its nearly three-hour running time (including an intermission at some screenings).

There is one “episode” featuring James Caan that has literally – LITERALLY – nothing to do with the plot.  He plays an Army grunt who has promised his young captain not to let him die.  After a grueling ground battle, Caan finds his captain’s lifeless body and, after improbably running a German blockade, holds an Army medic at gunpoint, forcing him to examine his dead captain for signs of life.  I read that, unlikely thought it may seem, this incident really did happen as presented in the film (more or less).  All well and good.  But what does it have to do with capturing bridges?  I’m sure the story is in the novel, but the movie takes a good 10-to-15-minute detour from the plot to follow this bizarre story.  Did director Richard Attenborough think we needed comic relief or something?  I remember liking that story as a kid, but watching it now…is it necessary?  Discuss amongst yourselves, I’ll expect a summary of your answer at tomorrow’s class.

I want to mention the combat scenes in A Bridge Too Far.  First off, I never served in the armed forces.  Well, never in combat.  I was in the Air Force for about a week.  (Well, Air Force boot camp in Oklahoma for about a week…LONG story.)  So, my observations of the combat scenes are less about historical accuracy and more about how they compare to other films.  While some of the combat portrayed is rightfully horrific in its own way – the river crossing in those ridiculous canvas boats, the slaughter of the paratroopers, the seemingly endless holdout at Arnhem – a lot of the combat, particularly the tank shelling and the skirmishes at Arnhem, is…I have to say, it’s kind of fun to watch.  There’s something, I don’t know, charming about it all.  It reminded me of how I used to play with my army men and Star Wars figures, or how I used to run around with neighborhood friends wearing plastic helmets and pretending we were “good-guys-and-bad-guys” while throwing dirt clods at each other and making fake explosion noises.  It was movies like A Bridge Too Far that shaped my young impressions of what wartime combat was like, and whether it was realistic or not was irrelevant.

Anyway, enough nostalgia.  Here’s the sad truth: A Bridge Too Far, despite its thrilling combat and all-star cast, falls short of delivering a truly meaningful war film.  There are half-hearted attempts to drum up some dramatic impact with scenes in a makeshift field hospital and a speech in Dutch from Liv Ullman wearing her best “isn’t-war-awful” expression, but for some reason those scenes fall flat.  (I did like the “war-is-futile” scene with that one soldier who runs out to retrieve the air-dropped canister, only to discover…well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good scene.)

After writing almost 1,000 words, I’m no closer to explaining why A Bridge Too Far falls short.  It’s still an entertaining watch, but I’ve really got to be in the mood for it.  It’s rather like reading a historical novel that isn’t particularly thrilling like a Crichton or a Clancy, but it does deliver some eyebrow-raising information.  It doesn’t hit me in the heart, but it does feed my brain.  Maybe that’s not such a bad thing in the long run, but if movies are about stirring emotions, I must say: A Bridge Too Far is no Saving Private Ryan.

(Sure, I probably could have just said that instead of writing this long-ass review, but where’s the fun in that?)


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Best line or memorable quote:
“Remember what the general said: we’re the cavalry. It would be bad form to arrive in advance of schedule. In the nick of time would do nicely.”

Would you recommend this film?  Why or why not?
Ultimately, I would recommend it to film buffs who have not yet seen it.  If nothing else, it’s an interesting time capsule movie.  This would be the last time for a VERY long time that anyone would attempt to make an epic film with a truly all-star cast.  …come to think of it, I can’t think of a major, epic drama since A Bridge Too Far with an actual A-list cast.  Can you?

MIGUEL’S FAVORITE MOVIES/TV SHOWS OF 2022

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Another challenger arrives! This challenge comes from Anthony Casale who asked us (me, Marc Sanders, and the estimable Mr. Thomas Pahl) what our 10 favorite movies and/or TV shows were from the 2022 calendar year.

Below are my answers, along with a few cherished honorable mentions. Let me know how I did in the comments. And thanks for reading!


10. BABYLON – Recipe for making the movie Babylon: Take three parts Singin’ in the Rain, three parts Boogie Nights, two parts Moulin Rouge!, two parts The Artist, and a dash of Goodfellas.  Throw everything into a Cuisinart and mix it all together into a frenetically-edited dough.  Smooth it out into a bread pan, being careful to leave a VERY few uneven spots.  Throw it into an oven that’s hotter than a poor guy locked in a sound booth.  Bake until everything is a golden brown with a tinge of debauchery, insanity, and highly questionable morals.  Serve while sizzling.  (Wait…is this a good review or a bad review?  The answer is: yes.)

9. CLERKS IIIAs a fan of all things Kevin Smith…well, MOST things Kevin Smith…this was one of my most highly-anticipated films of 2022.  I was not disappointed.  Clerks III retains all the irreverent humor from the first two installments, wrapped in a surprisingly touching screenplay that goes so meta it becomes almost impossible to identify what’s fiction and what’s autobiography.  Mr. Smith has sometimes said he CAN make “good” movies when he wants to.  It would seem this good movie escaped the editing room without him realizing it.

8. LIGHTYEAR – Okay, I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about this movie, so just move along if you didn’t like it.  As for me, I didn’t just like it, I loved it.  I thought it was an intriguing thought experiment that fits extremely well into the Toy Story-verse.  (If that’s not a word, it should be.)  Not only was the story compelling on its own, but the filmmakers also threw in multiple throwbacks and Easter eggs referencing specific moments and shots from the first two Toy Story films.  I will acknowledge the negative opinions of this film, but I cannot say I understand them.  This was a treat.

7. HOUSE OF THE DRAGON, Season 1 – Due to the trash fire that was the final season of Game of Thrones, my hopes were very, very low for House of the Dragon.  Rumors abounded: it’s been axed, it’s been delayed, it’s been transferred to Netflix, etcetera.  So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I found myself drawn back into the Thrones-iverse (patent pending) with this prequel series set nearly 200 years before the original.  Like the original, the very first episode reaches out and grabs you, then settles in for palace intrigue, bloodshed, betrayal, and boobs.  (It’s not porn…it’s HBO.)  I couldn’t tell you any of the names of the main characters if pressed right at this moment, but while it plays, it’s compelling television.  I hope the remaining seasons can live up to the promise of this first one.

6. TURNING RED – One of Pixar’s best, funniest movies since Inside Out.  Most of the negative reviews of the movie that I read had one thing in common: they all called the lead character “irritating.”  Well…the lead character is a rebellious, hormone-stricken 13-year-old girl.  Of COURSE, she’s irritating.  That just makes her character feel more real and grounded.  Some folks also had problems with a kid’s movie addressing feminine hygiene, however briefly.  Well, gee whiz, heaven forbid we introduce a daily – monthly? – fact of life into a film.  That element of the movie made it feel like an animated film written by John Hughes.  This is not a bad thing.  (Read my full review here: TURNING RED (2022) – 2 UNPAID MOVIE CRITICS!!!! )

5. SUCCESSION, Season 3Succession is basically Game of Thrones without the dragons, incest, nudity, and gory violence.  All the other elements are there: power struggles, betrayals, conspiracies, double-crosses, family loyalty, explosive secrets, etc.  Season Three was just as entertaining as the first two seasons, with more twists and turns than the Monaco Grand Prix.  Brian Cox’s performance as the family patriarch, Logan Roy, stands with the best work he’s ever done.  His brood of conniving children are every bit his equal…but they just can’t seem to get him out the door.  Every time they think he’s cornered, he pulls a Houdini by being even more lowdown than they would ever suspect.  It’s a breathtaking feat of writing, acting, and direction.  My favorite HBO series since, you guessed it, Game of Thrones.

4. TOP GUN: MAVERICK – The sequel NOBODY wanted…but when it finally arrived, miracle of miracles, it was actually good.  No…not just good.  It was GREAT.  The film’s creators wisely realized they needed to inject this sequel with a healthy dose of nostalgia for fans of the original 1986 film.  (Thirty-six years previous!)  As one of those fans, let me tell you: when the first notes of the “Top Gun Anthem” started playing over the opening credits, a ridiculous grin was plastered on my face, and it stayed there for almost the whole movie.  Attention must be paid to the fact that virtually all the cockpit scenes in the film are 100% real, filmed with the real actors in the real cockpits of real Navy jet fighters.  The effect of this method cannot be overstated.  The aerial combat scenes felt absolutely authentic, creating a vibe that green/blue-screen trickery simply cannot duplicate.  True, the story/screenplay isn’t exactly Oscar material…but who cares?  What a ride!  (Trivia note: this is one of the most financially successful sequels of all time, if not THE most successful.  Total global box office take from May thru December 2022: nearly $1.5 billion.  I think this Tom Cruise guy may have a future in movies…)

3. ANDOR, Season 1 – It’s finally here: the Star Wars series for people who hate Star Wars.  Purists have been heard to lament the fact that Andor has very little in it to identify it as part of the Star Wars universe.  No Jedi.  No lightsabers.  Very little mention, if any at all, of the Force.  Only one space “battle”, if you’d even call it that.  As for me, I thought all those absences worked in Andor’s favor.  Created by Hollywood veteran Tony Gilroy (screenwriter of, among many others, the Jason Bourne franchise, Michael Clayton, and wouldn’t you know it, Rogue One), Andor presents us with a more realistic version of the Star Wars universe.  Did you know there are desk jobs in the Imperial bureaucracy?  Well, why wouldn’t there be?  Fighting a rebellion costs money – where does that money come from?  Who funds it?  A highly placed senator has a plan, but she must find a way to keep it a secret, not just from Imperial oversight, but also from her husband and daughter.  These people couldn’t give two figs about the Force; they’re just trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.  There are so many brilliant details, I could literally go on and on.  Andor is the most compelling new series I watched all year.

2. THE BATMAN – Wow…and I thought Joker was dark.  A serial killer goes on a spree, leaving behind notes and riddles for the Batman.  Putting his considerable deductive skills to work, Bruce Wayne follows the clues, but the killer manages to stay one step ahead.  Do these seemingly random murders have a connection?  Does the killer have a master plan?  Is water wet?  What made this new version so thrilling was the fresh screenplay, yes, but also the visual style.  This new version of Gotham City seems to inhabit the same universe as Blade Runner, where the rain is more or less perpetual, and the nights are lit like an early episode of Miami Vice.  Robert Pattinson’s take as a younger, but equally tortured, Bruce Wayne felt even more “organic” than Christian Bale’s Batman.  Pattinson pulls off a younger, even angrier vibe, and it’s interesting to see that part of the Batman’s evolution.  The serial killer’s methods and personality felt like something right out of Se7en.  Colin Farrell’s Penguin is a master class in knowing just how far is too far to go with a big character.  Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle is every bit as dangerous as her predecessors.  And holy crap, that Batmobile…?  DAYAM.  Nolan’s The Dark Knight is still my favorite Batman film overall, but The Batman stands as an impressive example of the right way to reboot.

  1. EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCEFar and away the single best movie I saw from 2022.  I’ll keep it short by saying, read my full review here: EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022) – 2 UNPAID MOVIE CRITICS!!!!


    HONORABLE MENTIONS, in no particular order:
    The Bob’s Burgers Movie
    Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness
    Stranger Things, Season 4
    The Fabelmans
    She-Hulk, Season 1
    The Menu
    Strange World
    Avatar: The Way of Water
    Solar Opposites, Season 3
    Moon Knight, Season 1

MARY AND MAX (Australia, 2009)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Stop Motion Film”

PLOT: A tale of friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and Max, a forty-four-year-old severely obese man living in New York.


“Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the color of poo.”

Thus begins the narration of one of the most poignant movies I’ve ever seen, Mary and Max, a 2009 stop-motion animated film made in Australia.  It never got a wide release in America; were it not for the fact it appeared on the IMDb list of the top 250 favorite films worldwide, I might never have heard of it.  Thank goodness I found a copy online and bought it…one my best “blind-buy” purchases ever.

At this point in an earlier draft of this review, I launched into a plot description which veered into a discussion about the movie’s color palette, its tone, its agenda, etcetera.  But that somehow didn’t feel right, and I got bogged down.  What I really want to impart upon you, the reader, is how it made me feel.

It’s a drama about mental illness wrapped in the trappings of a Tim Burton-esque dark comedy.  What this means is, some of the visuals are right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas: oversized flies with googly eyes, suicidal goldfish, main characters whose body shapes resemble vegetables more than people.  But the story and emotional beats rival any Merchant Ivory film or James L. Brooks weepie.

Eight-year-old Mary Dinkle, who lives in Australia, starts up a pen-pal correspondence with Max Horovitz, a 44-year-old obese single man with undiagnosed (at least initially) Asperger syndrome.  After his initial panic attack at receiving a letter from a complete stranger, which throws his carefully controlled equilibrium out of whack, he writes her back, and they wind up having a decades-long correspondence.  She has no friends due to her prominent forehead birthmark.  He has no friends because he can’t relate to people.

The movie is mostly an unseen narrator bridging gaps between their letters, while the letters are read as they’re being written/typed by Mary and Max.  The relationship between the two is as touching as anything I’ve ever seen on film.  She sends him a hand-drawn picture of herself, which he keeps in his mirror to remind himself how people are supposed to look when they’re happy.  He sends her his recipe for chocolate hot dogs (a chocolate bar in a hot dog bun).  She asks him all the important questions, like: if a taxi drives backwards, does the driver owe YOU money?  He explains a long gap in their correspondence: “I was hospitalized, won the lottery, and my next-door neighbor died.”

These two lonely souls reaching out to each other just made me feel sunny inside, even amid the small tragedies they each faced.  Mary’s father dies.  Max keeps having to buy goldfish.  Mary falls in love with the Greek boy across the street, a boy who stutters, wants to be an actor, and, when they become engaged, makes her wedding dress for her.  Uh, huh.

The way in which the stories of these two people were written to complement each other without being identical is a delicate balancing act that threatens to veer into farce, then rights itself at the last second.  As I say, it’s hard to describe.

A turning point occurs when Mary gets a bit older, goes to school, studies mental disorders, and writes a book about her American pen-friend with Asperger’s.  She sends him the very first copy…but Max’s reaction is not what she anticipated.  She falls into a depression…

And here the movie takes a brilliantly dark turn.  I remember watching it for the very first time thinking, “Are they really telling THIS kind of story in a stop-motion film?”  Yep, they are.  There is a key scene where Mary has a kind of fever-dream hallucination choreographed to a haunting version of “Que Sera, Sera”, and my jaw dropped.  I cannot claim to have intimate knowledge of mental illnesses, but this scene just feels right.  This is a great representation of what someone’s mind might look and sound like on the brink of a terrible decision.

I realize I’m not making this movie sound like a lot of fun.  I can assure you that it is entertaining and fun, with a nasty (in a good way) habit of getting a chuckle while juxtaposing it against a scene of subtle awfulness.  The way Mary’s mother dies gets a laugh…but only as you’re listening to her death throes in the background.  The way Max’s various goldfish die is alternately funny and gruesome, or both at the same time.

And the REAL kicker is the final sequence, where Mary finally discovers where Max has kept all her letters through the years.  This moment is one of the greatest revelations I’ve ever seen, and I nearly shed a tear when she did.

Portrayals of mental illness in films have had varying degrees of success.  For every Rain Man, there’s an I Am Sam.  With Mary and Max, the filmmakers used the stop-motion medium to present hard-hitting material without totally getting bogged down in the inherent trauma or pathos of the illness being portrayed.  It’s an ingenious combination, but I’ll be damned if I can explain exactly WHY it works.  It just does.  Mary and Max remains one of the most unique animated films I’ve ever seen.  Seek this one out if you can.


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Were you surprised by the ending? What would you do differently?
I was bamboozled by the ending. I do sort of wish we had some idea of what happened to Mary after her trip, but I guess that’s okay. I wish her well in her future endeavors, wherever she may be.

Why do you think stop-motion was chosen for this film rather than animation?
As I mentioned, I believe it was to leaven the deep, potentially dreary material with the inherent oddness of the medium. Even a man in a wheelchair with no legs looks undeniably goofy…but it’s tragic. But he looks kinda funny.

MIGUEL’S 100 FAVORITE MOVIES OF ALL TIME: #10-1

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

At last. The acme. The zenith. The tippest of the top. The ne plus ultra.

As part of a challenge from Jim Johnson, I created a ranked list of 100 of my favorite movies. To reiterate, this is not necessarily “definitive” by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, please…can I switch numbers 35 and 88? Absolutely. But lists are lists, and here we are.

Per the rules, here are my top 10 most favorite movies of all time, followed by a complete list of all 100 for the curious. Feel free to argue/tell me how wrong I am in the comments.


10. THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) – Another Peter Weir film that is hypnotic and compelling, especially during the final sequence when I thought I would levitate from my seat in the theater out of pure joy. I’m not exaggerating. As someone who had a strict religious upbringing, I identified strongly with Truman, someone who experiences life, love, and the world only as far as the people pulling the strings will allow. I felt his wonder and curiosity and slow realization that there just might be life outside of Seahaven, the island home he has never left since he was born. When the true nature of Truman’s world was revealed, I wasn’t exactly shocked (the trailers did an uncommonly good job of spoiling that surprise), but I felt a kinship to his situation. And when he finally overcomes his fears and heads into the unknown…I all but cheered. This movie was an acutely personal experience that I will never forget. Others may not have felt the same thing, and that’s fine. But for me, The Truman Show is absolutely in my top-ten.

9. CASABLANCA (1942) – One of the greatest movie-going experiences of my life was seeing the 50th-anniversary screening of a new print of Casablanca at Tampa Theatre in 1992. I had still not seen this so-called classic, so I figured, why not now? I went with a friend of mine who HAD seen the movie, and we sat in the balcony. Surprisingly, I do not remember the acoustics interfering with the movie’s dialogue as much as it normally does. I heard every line crystal clear…and I also heard the full house cheering with every famous line. “I was misinformed.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Play it, Sam.” At first, I was annoyed, but as the movie went on, I was amazed at how caught up in the story I was getting, despite how clichéd a lot of it was. By the end, as Rick and Renault walked off together, I was sold on Casablanca’s place in Hollywood history, and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. I have heard and read numerous arguments against Casablanca, and those good folks are entitled to their clear, concise, and well-stated opinions…no matter how wrong they are.

8. DR. STRANGELOVE or: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) – George Carlin once said that you can make a joke out of literally any subject, no matter how dark or taboo. Stanley Kubrick’s satirical take on nuclear holocaust is a case in point. What started out at the screenplay level as a straight-up thriller morphed into a Python-esque comedy where statistics about warheads and megadeaths rub shoulders with an American President named Merkin Muffley and an eccentric German scientist whose right hand seems to have a life of its own. Peter Sellers pulls off a hat-trick by playing three vastly different characters, some of whom share screen time, and making each one so unique that, when I first watched it, I had a hard time believing they were all played by the same actor. Kubrick shoots some thrilling combat footage, foreshadowing what he would later accomplish with Full Metal Jacket 24 years later, then contrasts it with scenes like the one where George C. Scott’s character gets so keyed up while describing the capabilities of his long-range bombers that he forgets he’s describing how the apocalypse might literally begin. (Dr. Strangelove was so effective at combining humor with the unthinkable that, when Fail Safe was released 10 months later, it was not quite as successful as it could have been because audiences could not take it seriously.) This movie reaches my top 10 for its sheer audacity and wit in the face of material that seems incapable of supporting a comic premise.

7. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) – Breathes there the man with soul so dead they have not yet seen It’s a Wonderful Life? If so, I pity that man. Frank Capra’s ultimate Christmas movie has turned many people off, it seems, by the thoroughly depressing plotline during the first 80% of the film (approximately). George Bailey, an everyman with dreams of traveling the world, is forced to put those dreams on hold to save the family business. In the process, he meets and marries the love of his life, has four kids, and flirts with bankruptcy every fiscal year. When a crucial bank deposit is misplaced, putting his entire livelihood in jeopardy, George contemplates suicide – on Christmas Eve, no less. So, yeah, this ain’t exactly the Marx Brothers. What turns It’s a Wonderful Life into a true classic and a perennial favorite is the last 20% of the movie, where George’s guardian angel appears and offers him a gift: the chance to see what the world would be like without him. In a lesser film, that plot point would provide the engine for at least half of its running time. Capra wisely realizes that George’s “redemption” only means anything if we see just how far and fast he falls, and what’s at stake, and so his redemption scenes function more like punctuation marks at the end of a sentence. The rapturous finale is, let’s face it, corny as hell…but by God, it works. Best. Christmas. Movie. EVER.

6. SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) – I will never forget a moment when watching Schindler’s List for the first time, when Schindler is observing the evacuation/extermination of a Jewish community from a nearby hill. As Schindler keys in on a little girl in a red coat, German soldiers line up several Jews single file, then fire their pistols at one end just to see how many Jews the bullets will kill before losing power. I distinctly remember thinking, “Wow, how horrible,” but I also remember a faint smile on my face, because I was also thinking, “Wow, here’s a movie that isn’t going to pull any punches.” …and then I had a sobering moment when I reminded myself, wait, this isn’t just a director lining up a shot to make a point about the horrors of war…someone probably witnessed this exact moment, which made it into a book, which made it onto film. That realization opened my eyes and brought a whole new clarity to everything that had come before and would come after. What makes Spielberg’s film even more astonishing is that he and screenwriter Steven Zaillian, sorcerers that they are, managed to somehow bring just the right level of entertainment to the screen without feeling they were downplaying the seriousness of the subject matter. Perfect example: when the little boy points out who killed the chicken – it’s an awful, awful scene, but the punchline gets a laugh, and it doesn’t feel out of place. Schindler’s List is some kind of miracle and should be required viewing for…well, everyone.

5. AMADEUS (1984) – When I was just hitting my teenage years, I wasn’t listening to a lot of pop radio, so my dad got me into classical music by buying a box set (on cassette!) of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. I got familiar with the style and flow of classical music, and started slowly realizing the connection between movie scores and classical music, etc. And then Amadeus started airing on cable. The first thing I remember is coming across it towards the end, during the scene where Mozart is dictating his music to Salieri. I had no idea what I was watching, but the way that scene represented classical music being broken down into its component parts, and how a composer must know each little section inside and out to make sure everything works when it all comes together…that scene blew me away. Then I watched Amadeus from the beginning, and I was mesmerized from start to finish. I identified with Salieri’s frustration: “God, I am your true servant, yet you allow this vulgar man to flourish while I toil in obscurity.” Sure, I was only 13, but that captured one of my eternal questions when it came to religion in general. But even aside from the movie’s grand themes, Amadeus embodies the word “sumptuous.” Not until Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette had I ever seen a movie with such exquisite sets and costumes. And I had to wait until I saw a “making-of” documentary to be convinced that old Salieri and younger Salieri were played by the same person. Amadeus uses some of the greatest music ever written to support a story with which anyone can identify: Am I destined to only recognize greatness without ever achieving it myself? A stone-cold classic.

4. PINOCCHIO (1940) – Animation has held a special place in my movie-loving psyche ever since I discovered how laborious the animation process is, particularly when it comes to hand-drawn animation. The idea that every single frame was painstakingly drawn, painted, and photographed was mindboggling to me, especially when animated movies seemed so free in movement and the characters looked convincingly heavy and real. What sorcery is this? The high-water mark of hand-drawn, or ANY, animation is and shall remain Walt Disney’s second feature film, Pinocchio. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, if not scores, and it never ceases to amaze me. Look at Pinocchio’s facial expressions in any given scene. Look at how Monstro the whale evokes immense size and weight. Look at that fantastic underwater section as sea creatures of all shapes populate every corner of the frame. And especially consider the story that pulls no punches when it comes to dramatic impact. Nowadays, many films aimed at kids are all sugar and sweet and give mere lip service to danger and/or peril. Compare them to Pinocchio, a movie that puts the hero in creepy danger (Stromboli), then creepier danger (Pleasure Island and those donkeys), then in utter mortal danger (Monstro’s pursuit). This may be an animated film, but it refuses to talk down to its audience, children or otherwise. Pinocchio is a classic that has rarely been equaled (opinions vary), but which will never be surpassed. Change my mind. [Spoiler alert: you won’t.]

3. CITIZEN KANE (1941)The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957] was one of the first movies that convinced me that “old” movies could be as thrilling as modern films. But the first movie that convinced me that older films could be BETTER than modern films was Citizen Kane. After years of hearing about it by reputation, I rented a copy from Blockbuster and was thunderstruck at how engrossed I was after the first five minutes…and that’s just the newsreel. From there on, the mystery of Kane’s life and his cryptic dying word just got better and better, visually and story-wise. Especially visually. Volumes have been written about Welles’s vision and his close collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland to accomplish some of the most iconic and virtuoso shots in the history of cinema, so I won’t go into details here. The visual aspect of this film is as closely related to its success as any other element. Certainly, it’s filled with brilliant performances and breathtaking rapid-fire dialogue that feels lifted from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. But it’s the camerawork that caught my attention more than anything else the first time around, and it still amazes me today. I have yet to see a black-and-white movie that demonstrates more visual virtuosity than Citizen Kane. (And to those who claim it’s “boring”…um…I literally have no response to that…)

2. HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) – When I was performing in a show in my mid-20s, I had fallen into a kind of depression, or at least a deep funk. Due to a variety of factors in my life at the time, I felt redundant, powerless, talentless, and terribly cynical about the world in general. A fellow cast member noticed my pain and brought in a VHS copy of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude for me to borrow and watch. He told me, “I recognize myself in you from 20 years ago. So, trust me when I tell you that this movie will change your life.” I was naturally skeptical, but I took it home and watched it…and I am not exaggerating when I say, Harold and Maude literally changed my life. Maybe not overnight, but it absolutely changed my perspective on a great many things. The story is quirky, to say the least: a depressed young man from a very rich family stages fake suicides and attends funerals for strangers to pass the time. At one of these funerals, he meets a lively 79-year-old woman who shares his fondness for funerals, but who has a very different outlook on life. She takes him under her wing, encourages him to not to take life so seriously, teaches him to appreciate the little things, and so on. He falls in love with her unshakeable positivity…and with her, romantically. What happens next, I shall not reveal, but when I reached the film’s final sequence, I was transported. When it was over, I felt I was seeing the world around me with blinders off. It is no exaggeration to say that, without Harold and Maude, I would not be where I am today: in a stable relationship with the woman I love for over 20 years, in a job that I – well, “love” is a strong word – a job that I ENJOY as opposed to one that I don’t, a sturdy support structure composed of my closest friends and family, and making enough money to pay the bills while still being able to travel and indulge in my passion (acting) on the side. “Harold, EVERYONE has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can’t let the world judge you too much.” Words to live by.

1. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Great Britain, 1962) – This has been my favorite film of all time since seeing it on TNT over 30 years ago. Even in a non-letterboxed format (sacrilege!), the majesty of David Lean’s magnum opus was undeniable. Then I saw it on a 2-volume letterboxed VHS, and I got to see even more of the desert scenery and carefully planned details in the corners that I missed on network TV. On DVD, things got even better. But THEN…the Blu-ray came out…and I was blown away. Now I could see the Bedouin through Lawrence’s binoculars. I could see the tiny speck on the horizon before it resolved itself into the figure of a man on camelback. The sand and dust and smoke and blood all reached a level of detail that made me fall in love with it all over again. (And I don’t think I can talk about seeing it on the big screen in 70mm for its 50th anniversary without making this a novella.) This movie hits all the bases. Visually, it’s simply magnificent. This was the early 1960s, so Lean took the gigantic movie cameras of the day to the real Jordanian deserts and shot virtually everything in the film on location…IN THE DESERT. The widescreen compositions and movement are unparalleled. Story-wise, this is, of course, the story of a man’s life against an epic backdrop, so right away you’ve got me. The details of Lawrence’s life during the Arabian campaign during World War I are provided with just enough information to let the audience know exactly what’s going on without overwhelming you with a deluge of minutiae. But the real engines driving the film (aside from David Lean, of course) are the powerhouse performances from the cast: Omar Sharif, a fiery Anthony Quinn (regrettably in “brownface”, but fiery nevertheless), and of course Peter O’Toole as Lawrence. With his piercing stare, lanky frame, and soft-spoken presence, Lawrence comes across as just slightly north of mad, but his conviction and tactical brilliance in the field make him an invaluable asset for the British…until he decides Arabia should be free from ALL rule, not just Turkish, and sets out to LIBERATE Arabia. The feeling I’m left with after watching all 227 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia is the same one I get after finishing a long, extremely entertaining novel. I can’t imagine a scenario in which I will ever get tired of watching this film. Lawrence of Arabia is as close to cinematic perfection as anyone is likely to get, and it is my absolute favorite film of all time.


TOP 100 FAVORITE FILMS OF ALL TIME:

  1. Lawrence of Arabia
  2. Harold and Maude
  3. Citizen Kane
  4. Pinocchio
  5. Amadeus
  6. Schindler’s List
  7. It’s a Wonderful Life
  8. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  9. Casablanca
  10. The Truman Show
  11. The Red Shoes
  12. Pan’s Labyrinth
  13. Cloud Atlas
  14. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  15. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  16. The Godfather
  17. The Godfather: Part II
  18. Parasite
  19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  20. Blade Runner 2049
  21. The Last Emperor
  22. Prometheus
  23. The Exorcist
  24. Wall*E
  25. Children of Men
  26. Requiem for a Dream
  27. United 93
  28. Spirited Away
  29. The Deer Hunter
  30. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  31. Saving Private Ryan
  32. Pulp Fiction
  33. Baraka
  34. Nostalgia for the Light
  35. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
  36. Network
  37. Chinatown
  38. Midnight in Paris
  39. The Remains of the Day
  40. Being John Malkovich
  41. Notorious
  42. Psycho
  43. Breaking the Waves
  44. To Be or Not to Be [1942]
  45. Match Point
  46. The Iron Giant
  47. Up
  48. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  49. Look Who’s Back
  50. Inglourious Basterds
  51. Double Indemnity
  52. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  53. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  54. The Apartment
  55. The Piano
  56. The Sting
  57. Fight Club
  58. Magnolia
  59. Jaws
  60. Aliens
  61. Roma
  62. Ready Player One
  63. Everything Everywhere All at Once
  64. Inside Out
  65. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  66. The Social Network
  67. Stranger Than Fiction
  68. Life Is Beautiful
  69. Incendies
  70. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  71. Toy Story
  72. Lost in Translation
  73. Bound
  74. Skyfall
  75. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  76. Whiplash
  77. Get Out
  78. The Babadook
  79. Hotel Rwanda
  80. Promising Young Woman
  81. The Dark Knight
  82. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
  83. Dark Days
  84. A Separation
  85. Monterey Pop
  86. Run Lola Run
  87. There Will Be Blood
  88. Dark City
  89. Hoop Dreams
  90. Finding Nemo
  91. Little Miss Sunshine
  92. Hereditary
  93. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  94. Logan
  95. Love Actually
  96. Atonement
  97. Joker
  98. Star Trek [2009]
  99. Avatar
  100. I, Daniel Blake

MIGUEL’S 100 FAVORITE MOVIES OF ALL TIME: #25-11

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Part 4 of a 5-part series counting down the list of my 100 favorite movies of all time. I started to run off at the mouth the closer I got to #1, so the top 10 will get their own post. Let’s get started:


25. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) – One of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction is anything to do with a post-apocalyptic Earth, or an Earth approaching some kind of apocalypse. Children of Men, from visionary director Alfonso Cuarón, uses an ingenious plot device of sudden female infertility to depict a near-future global society facing extinction within a generation. This plunges our hero, Theo, into a conspiracy surrounding an explosive secret and those who will kill to keep it. Cuarón uses subtle CGI effects to show the viewer some advanced everyday technology, and to present three astounding long-take tracking shots where the camera placement sometimes appears physically impossible. This clinical description does the movie no justice. It’s full of ideas, questions to ponder, and gorgeous imagery. It’s one of the finest science-fiction films of the first half of our young century.

24. WALL*E (2008) – …and speaking of great science-fiction films of our century… Pixar hit yet another home run with this sci-fi comedy about a diminutive robot, designed to clean up Earth’s trash, who busily goes about his duties even though no humans remain. They have long since vanished, some 700 years earlier, from the face of their terminally polluted planet. And when a strange spaceship unexpectedly lands nearby one day…well, on the off-off chance you’ve never seen it, I’ll stop there. As is nearly always the case with Pixar, the visual splendor and detail are complemented by adorable characters and a plot that is much more than just a clothesline on which to hang those characters. I watched it recently, having not seen it in quite some time, and I had forgotten some of the little story details. When Wall*E forsakes his own welfare in favor of the “directive”…I gotta tell ya, I got a tiny bit choked up. This may be Pixar’s crowning achievement. When they make a movie better than this one, I’ll let you know.

23. THE EXORCIST (1973) – I have been seeing more and more pundits and “Greatest Movies” lists that cite Rosemary’s Baby as the scariest movie ever made. I have seen Rosemary’s Baby, and I’m here to tell you: Rosemary’s Baby is to The Exorcist as Alfalfa from the Little Rascals is to Henry Cavill. The Exorcist is flat out the scariest movie I have ever seen. Yes, scarier than The Descent, The Babadook, Hereditary, Alien, Jaws, all of them. The reason is only partially due to the subject matter, regarding a little girl who seems to be possessed by an unspeakably evil spirit and the priest who must wrestle with the demon while wrestling with his own self-doubts. The other reason The Exorcist is so effective is director William Friedkin’s decision to shoot the scariest scenes almost as if a documentary crew were filming it spontaneously. It’s hard to put into words, but it makes those scenes feel so real, it becomes almost disturbing to watch. Even now, after having watched it multiple times, those initial scenes where Regan’s possession really takes hold are still capable of making me wince. (And to those who might still decry the movie on religious grounds, I would invite them to actually watch the movie and see WHO ACTUALLY WINS.)

22. PROMETHEUS (2012) – During the Covid lockdown, I found myself watching certain films over and over again: Interstellar, Arrival, The Martian, and a few others. One of those films (which is still on heavy rotation) was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long-anticipated prequel to his landmark 1979 film, Alien. I won’t say Prometheus is a perfect film. (There’s only one of those, as you’ll see.) But I will say it’s that rare breed of sci-fi horror that delivers on just about every level. Terror: this will scare the bejeebers out of you, full stop. Visual: Prometheus boasts some of the very best visual effects, practical and CGI, I’ve ever seen. Intellectual: not content with just frightening the hell out of the audience, Prometheus tackles the greatest questions of our existence. Are we here for a reason? If something or someone out there created us…why? And who created THEM? And how great a role should one’s spiritual belief play in seeking the answer to that question? Improbably, all those elements blend together in a supremely re-watchable movie experience. Best prequel ever? It’s certainly in the top three.

21. THE LAST EMPEROR (Great Britain, 1987) – Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece is a glittering example of one of my favorite kinds of dramas: an intimate examination of one person’s life against an epic background. And it doesn’t get much more epic than China in the last years of its imperial glory in the early-to-mid-1900s. Depicting the life of Pu Yi, the titular emperor, from the age of 2 until his death, The Last Emperor miraculously gained permission to shoot inside the fabulous Forbidden City in Beijing, the first Western film to do so. As a result, Pu Yi’s day-to-day life as a revered, but essentially powerless, figurehead gains enormous impact from such a massive, exotic backdrop. But the spectacle would be meaningless without its heart, the story of this poor child, raised to be a ruler, then cast out to fend for himself in a world he has never experienced, and which is about to undergo massive changes. Others may complain about this movie’s length, but I find it mesmerizing every time I watch…it’s like falling into a favorite book. But like a really THICK book.

20. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) – This is another film that was in HEAVY rotation during Covid lockdown. It’s a sequel that I never knew I wanted, that I never thought could work, but director Denis Villeneuve succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. In a future Los Angeles that looks just as bleak as the one from the original Blade Runner (yet still paradoxically beautiful), new versions of replicants who can’t disobey are used as blade runners themselves to hunt down older renegade replicants. One such cop makes a world-shattering discovery that will lead him to track down the one person who might be able to tell him if he was made…or born. Filled with the kinds of trademark visuals for which Villeneuve has become justly famous (look at 2021’s Dune) and aided by a terrific story that meshes with the first movie as neatly as you please, Blade Runner 2049 is a sensory and cerebral delight that rewards repeat viewings as much as the original Blade Runner did…and does.

19. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) – I was six years old when this movie came out. I didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters, but I remember watching it for the first time when it was aired as an ABC Sunday Night Movie. It was three hours long, so I had to ask Mami and Papi for permission to watch the whole thing. And, man…talk about having your mind blown. I mean, Star Wars had done pretty much the same thing a year earlier, but there was, and is, something about Close Encounters that reaches something primal in my heart and soul. Sure, I was terrified by Barry’s abduction – who wouldn’t be! – but the concept of UFOs coming to Earth and communicating with something as universal as music, and the look of those ships, and that enormous mothership…man, there were times I really wanted to be Roy Neary. I TOTALLY would have jumped aboard in my school days. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is my absolute favorite sci-fi film of all time.

18. PARASITE (South Korea, 2019) – Parasite may be the greatest “head-fake” in modern film history, at least as of the end of 2022. What starts as a social comedy/satire about class divisions in modern society becomes…well, it’s still a comedy/satire, but to say it suddenly goes in a different direction is putting it mildly. Describing the plot would be pointless, as half of the enjoyment of the film is delighting in the U-turn it executes at a crucial moment. Don’t be put off by the subtitles (this is a South Korean film…the first foreign film, in fact, to win both Best Foreign Film AND Best Picture at the Oscars that year). If anything, the subtitles serve the story by making it feel more like an anime film, which it sort of resembles in the last half. This is yet another movie that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. (I mean…there are no blonde bombshells, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.)

17/16. THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974) and THE GODFATHER (1972) – Probably the greatest double-act in movie history. [I am compelled to acknowledge the existence of The Godfather: Part III (1990) as the concluding chapter of the Corleone saga, but I don’t have to like it.] Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s massive bestsellers tells the story of one of the most paradoxical characters in filmdom: Michael Corleone, a passionate family man who mistakenly believes that love for his family is equal to the ruthlessness with which he pursues wealth and power. The first film is notable for, among MANY other things, Marlon Brando’s iconic performance as Michael’s father, Don Vito Corleone, stuffed jowls and all, but look at the movies as a whole, and it’s clearly Michael’s story. Godfather II is even more ambitious, combining Michael’s rise in the world of organized crime with a flashback to Vito Corleone’s origins in Little Italy. Made at the height of Hollywood’s second Golden Age, The Godfather I and II are manifestly well-acted and directed, but they also look phenomenal, with opulent set design and costumes supplemented by Gordon Willis’s legendary cinematography which took advantage of natural lighting and shadows, and which earned him the nickname, “The Prince of Darkness.” Combining my favorite sub-genre of drama (Life-of-a-Man-Against-Epic-Backdrop) with gorgeous visuals and expert storytelling, The Godfather I and II are my favorite crime dramas of all time.

15. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) – The next time someone says, “All remakes are garbage,” remind them that the greatest action thriller of all time was conceived as a tribute to the old Republic action serials from the 1930s and ‘40s, which thrilled Steven Spielberg as a child. In what may be the best-ever example of putting old wine in a new bottle, Raiders of the Lost Ark took ancient action tropes and gussied them up with the best VFX money could buy and, as a bonus, created one of the most enduring action heroes ever. Careening from booby-trapped caves in South America to the most isolated tavern in Nepal to a Nazi archaeological dig in Egypt, Raiders is a shining example of Howard Hawks’ legendary definition of what makes a good movie: Three good scenes and no bad ones. Pretty much ALL of the scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark are good ones, so…mission accomplished.

14. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (2003) – I don’t do much channel-surfing anymore, but I can absolutely guarantee you that if I were to channel-surf, and I came upon this movie, at virtually any point in its running time, I would stop and watch to the end. There has always been something compelling or hypnotic or SOMETHING about Peter Weir’s movies that tend to make me stop and stare (apologies to OneRepublic), and this movie is no exception. Adapted from a popular series of novels, unread by me, Master and Commander follows Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his crew aboard the sailing warship HMS Surprise during the Napoleonic Wars. Tasked with sinking a French privateer, Lucky Jack pushes his crew, his ship, and his close personal friendship with the ship’s doctor to their limits. No movie I’ve ever seen has depicted life aboard a sailing ship with such detail and, during battle, such a potent combination of excitement and fear. All due respect to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but I can’t think of any other film that has come close to the convincing reality on display in this, one of Peter Weir’s best films.

13. CLOUD ATLAS (2012) – This one was a surprise for me. I went into Cloud Atlas with moderate expectations because the Wachowskis had not had a hit since the Matrix franchise ended nearly 10 years earlier. To say my mind was blown is an understatement. In an editing feat rivaled only by that in Everything Everywhere All at Once, Cloud Atlas connects six similar, yet vastly different storylines separated by decades or centuries starting in 1849 and stretching to a post-apocalyptic 2321. Any further explanation of the plot would require a full review – which, conveniently enough, can be found here: https://2unpaidmoviecritics.com/2021/11/27/cloud-atlas-2012/. Cloud Atlas reached into my soul and became something that transcended itself and became more than just a movie-watching experience. I know that sounds sappy and woo-woo and cliched, but it’s true. I found myself asking the kinds of questions that belong in a philosophy class, or at a Starbucks coffee klatch, or in bed at night contemplating life, the universe, and everything. That doesn’t happen to me very often, so when a film brings that kind of thinking to the forefront, I don’t take it lightly.

12. PAN’S LABYRINTH (Mexico, 2006) – Hands down my favorite foreign language film of all time. Director Guillermo del Toro may have finally won his Oscar for The Shape of Water (2017), but Pan’s Labyrinth will stand as the pinnacle of his career until something better comes along. Telling an even darker and more suspenseful version of Alice in Wonderland than the one in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth spins a fantasy tale rooted in the real world: in Spain, an 11-year-old girl and her pregnant mother move to the countryside to be with her new stepfather, a sadistic captain in Francisco Franco’s army. One night, at the center of a crumbling labyrinth behind her house, she meets a friendly but menacing-looking faun who assigns her with three tasks…and more than that I shall not say. According to del Toro, the making of this movie nearly killed him, but the results were worth it. I like to think of it as the best Stephen King story that Stephen King never wrote. And I’m talking about vintage King, the good stuff. (And by the way…the “Pale Man” is one of the most flat-out horrifying fantasy creatures ever created.) Some of the more gruesome and sadistic material is understandably hard to stomach, but it’s all worth it for that majestic final sequence that, under the right circumstances, will get me choked up.

11. THE RED SHOES (Great Britain, 1948) – Some of my love for this film has to do with the unexpected nature of the ending, but mostly it’s because it’s one of the most beautiful movies ever made, and it’s one of the greatest backstage movies I’ve ever seen. Granted, it’s all about ballet, but I love, love, LOVE the various rehearsal scenes showing the orchestra getting notes from the composer/conductor, the dancers being put through their paces, and so on. The first time I saw it, I had not yet seen many films that showed the nitty-gritty of the rehearsal process, and I found it oddly thrilling. That’s not truly the point of the film, but those are the kinds of details that make it great. The main story is a tale as old as time, where an aspiring ballet dancer meets an impresario who offers to make her a star…but only at the expense of her personal life, for how else can one achieve, not just fame, but GLORY, without leaving something behind? The centerpiece of the film is a 15-minute sequence depicting a ballet scene in which the ballet dancer performs on stage, then slowly moves into fantasy where her passions and her fears threaten to overwhelm her. It’s literally impossible to describe in words; you should see it for yourself. [This would make an interesting “contrast-and-compare” double-feature with Black Swan (2010).]