04 January, 2008

My Favorite Movies

I love watching movies. Maybe it's not as intellectual or high-brow as reading a book, but it's easier because you can put in a two-hour commitment and then you know you'll be finished. Plus, it's just less effort. Anyhow, my favorite genre is horror, but I enjoy drama, fantasy, and sci-fi flicks quite a bit as well. For those that know me, there may or may not be any surprises in this list, but here is generally what I consider to be my top ten favorite movies, of all time (not necessarily in any particular order):

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Strangely, it seems that most of my favorite movies are ones that I inadvertently caught on TV unexpectedly once or more times, and slowly grew on me over time. The first time I saw Jacob's Ladder was in the month of October, during one of the major channels' horror showcases. I don't remember what year it was, but it can't have been later than 2000, and it wasn't more than a couple years earlier than that. I only caught part of the movie, so I had even less of an idea what was actually going on, but that didn't dull its effect on me. I specifically remember the dance-party scene, with the bloody snapping dog skull and the grind-beast. Boy, that totally blew my mind, that a movie could have such horrifying and yet realistic depictions of demonic beings, in a sophisticated manner, where the filming style and pacing of the story add a very disjointed and psychological aspect to the imagery. And then the story itself was so sublimely emotional, and the film was shot in a very careful manner, that you could jump between a confusing scene where you don't quite know what's going on as horrific images pass by left and right, and then enter a serenely peaceful scene that's relaxing yet carries a sad sense that things are not going so well and that hell could break loose again at any time. I'm not absolutely certain, but I believe this may have been the movie that ignited my deep fascination with the theme of "the journey to the afterlife".

Dead Man (1995)

I was attracted to this movie for Neil Young's score alone, but the film managed to win me over completely. The subject matter of journeying into the afterlife parallels the theme of Jacob's Ladder, but deals with it in a distinctly unique, and somewhat more abstract and symbolic, manner. In case I haven't made it clear, the soundtrack is downright spectacular. Some of Young's most haunting soundscapes, not tied down to the usual barriers of "words" and "songs". In fact, the soundtrack is almost like another character in the movie, lurking in the background, waiting to jump out and accentuate certain sections here and there. Johnny Depp plays an excellent confused accidental-outlaw, who gradually comes to accept as fact the riddles Nobody offers him (Nobody is his enigmatic Indian guide), confusing him for the poet William Blake, with which Depp's character shares the name. The story is bizarre, and moves along slowly, but the atmosphere is consuming. Though it appears to be a western on the surface, Dead Man is really far from the genre stereotype. This movie (in addition to Blow) turned me into a Johnny Depp fan. Anyone who would play the lead role in a film this obviously eccentric, and pull it off so well, deserves my respect and admiration.

Midnight Express (1978)

This is another movie I first saw on TV. My dad was watching it, and he deserves the honor of having introduced it to me. I caught the beginning of the movie over dinner, knowing nothing of what I was in for. William Hayes (the movie is based on the real life story of William Hayes) gets busted in a foreign country for trying to smuggle drugs over the border. He gets tossed into a rather frightening Turkish prison, and all his attempts to legally extricate himself from the situation get quashed by a political system that wishes to make an example of Hayes, to discourage smuggling. The sheer terror of being stuck in a foreign prison, so far from anything that is familiar, with people that don't even speak your language, and above all that, being a victim of some injustice your family and your country can do nothing about, is terrifying indeed. I was gripped by the movie and continued to watch the rest of it in my room. The physical and psychological torture that William Hayes endures, as he faces thirty years in a dirty foreign prison for a petty crime, and the painful journey he makes to try to escape from it beyond the unjust 'rules of the game' are incredibly intense and emotionally powerful. This is a story of true struggle, against the unfair odds that life sometimes throws upon us, and the ultimate lengths to which we must go if we are to have any hope for the future. An absolutely outstanding story, executed to perfection in this film adaptation. To think that it is based on a true story is terrifying, indeed.

The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995)

Yet another movie that I caught on TV first. I saw this one a long time ago, then forgot about it for awhile, before remembering it once again and bringing it back to the forefront of my knowledge. This is truly a bizarre tale, but beautiful in so many ways. At times it seems like something that could have really happened, other times it feels like a faery tale. The underlying theme, as indicated by the title, is passion, and the power it has to consume our mortal souls. Ashley Judd plays a convincing Callie (Kali?), part lonely wood nymph, part evil seductress. Brendan Fraser ropes in a mesmerizing performance as the innocent Darkly Noon, raised strictly by his ultra-religious parents, whom he is separated from by a fire which precedes the opening of the story. Now lost and alone in the middle of an unfamiliar forest, he is befriended by the beautiful Callie, for which he begins having feelings he doesn't quite know how to handle. An old woman who lives elsewhere in the forest provides a darker characterization of Callie, leaving the viewer uncertain of her true nature or intentions. Naturally, when Callie's mute lover returns from a long voyage, Darkly's jealousy gets the most of him, and he seems to summon up the rage of the devil himself just before an incredible climax. The plot aside, it is the beautifully enchanting and surreal atmosphere of the film, juxtaposed against the all-too-normal scenes, that really gives this film a unique and engrossing flavor. The scene with the floating circus shoe is just downright brilliant. But not only because it's random. If that were the case, I'd have much less respect for it. But because it has such a normal, rational explanation, yet the coincidence of its appearance yields something very profound, just makes it so magical for me. Fantastic all around.

Lost And Delirious (2001)

Unfortunately, this film doesn't get exactly the kind of attention it deserves, being a love story set in an all-girls dormitory, but make no bone about it - this film is modern Shakespeare. It is at times endearing, watching these young girls shedding their innocence, and at times heartbreaking, watching them crack under the pressures and realities of life. Watching this film had a profound effect on me, because I was simultaneously in awe of its beauty, and depressed at its inevitable conclusion. Is there anything in life more powerful, more important, than love? Can love truly destroy all barriers? And is love even more important than life itself? How do you deal with life when it takes away from you the one thing that truly matters? Do you try to move on, and conform to the role that's been laid out for you, or are you resolved to remain free and enlightened for eternity, at the ultimate cost? "Once you're up there at the top, looking down on everyone else, you're there forever, because if you move, you fall."

School of Rock (2003)

Originally, I didn't give this film much attention, because I figured a movie about kids starting a rock band would naturally be a little low-brow for me. I was wrong. And even though Jack Black isn't really my kind of comedian (not that I'm really into comedy much, anyway), I think he was perfect in this role. The philosophy of the movie is spot on, about the power and importance of music in life, and what it means to rock out. And I have to say, the kids are adorable, and the jokes are actually damn funny. This is one of those movies that I agree with on many levels, but don't really have to think about to enjoy it. I can just sit back and watch it over and over again and love every minute of it. I'm really not that kind of a movie-watcher, but this one is good enough to be an exception! That should explain enough.

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

I guess this means that I can't ever say that remakes are terrible based on principle alone! But this one does it right, by going back to the source material and taking advantage of what the previous effort ignored. The result is a fantastic story with a very paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere. Set in a research base out in the middle of Antarctica, a team of scientists becomes the target of an extraterrestrial lifeform, freed from the ice, which can disguise itself like a chameleon by assimilating the cells of its victims and morphing into an exact biological duplicate. This is an excellent premise, as the story focuses on the paranoia experienced by the scientists, who have no idea which one is the alien, hiding behind a familiar face, waiting for the right moment to strike. And before you start thinking that this is just a ploy not to have to design any complicated monster fx, the truth is that this movie has some of the most spectacular special effects in any movie I've ever seen. Not all of it is exactly believable, but it's convincing within context, and the effects themselves are very well-done and so over the top that it can't help but give you nightmares. The problem with most monster movies is that they either don't show enough of the monster, or they do and it looks terrible (either it looks fake or just not scary). But this movie doesn't have this problem. Add to that the tense atmosphere and suspenseful pacing, and you have a true winner of a horror film. Top grade.

Legend (1985)

Peter Jackson's fantastic adaptation of The Lord of The Rings aside, Legend is probably my favorite fantasy film. It paints such a picture, with the engrossing environments, and the simply out-of-this-world soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. My older brother also did his part in hyping up the movie in my younger years, remarking at how scary it was, with the depiction of Lord Darkness and all ("Black as darkness, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch!"). In my mind, everything about this film, from the characters to the lines, even to the character's voices and the way they say their lines, is classic. I love the dichotomy in this film, between light and darkness, and between hope and despair. You've got princesses, unicorns, elves and faeries, goblins and demons, the devil himself, enchanted forests and labyrinthine tunnels. And the best part is that it doesn't feel childish. It's all dead serious. And very artistic. I love it.

The Matrix (1999) [and sequels - Reloaded (2003) and Revolutions (2003)]

Probably my favorite sci-fi film, The Matrix is mind-blowing. And although the first movie gets the most exposure, you really can't talk about it without bringing in the continuation of the story in the two sequels. Still, the premise of the original alone is enough to get people's attention. What if the world as we know it is just an illusion, a computer program created to deceive us humans, so that we never realize that we are slaves to a race of machines out in the real world, who rely on our energy as their primary power source? Maybe the idea has been thrown around in various forms over the years, but this movie encapsulates the confusion of such a hypothesis in such a simultaneously entertaining and engaging manner. Meanwhile, it manages to ask all the myriad other philosophical brain-fuck questions that college students tend to ask when they're sitting up late, drinking some coffee after a last-minute study session before the next day's exam. This movie is cool.

Aliens (1986) [with a nod to Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992)]

The Alien movies had a huge impact on my youth, and of the original trilogy, it was the middle child that made the biggest impression on me. The first movie was groundbreaking, and terrifying, but the first sequel upped the ante by literally multiplying the alien threat many times over. This movie gave me nightmares. The hive, with the victims all gooed up, awaiting their inevitable and torturous death; the paranoia of the team with the aliens closing in and them not knowing how to escape or survive; and the Queen, by god, the Queen. Absolutely terrifying, and so powerful in its execution. Few movies (particularly horror and sci-fi) have ever managed to create such a believable and terrifying creature design, but H.R. Giger pulled through on the general form of the xenomorph. Well done.

Hm, I realize Jesus Christ Superstar isn't on this list, and it really has no reason not to be. I'll get around that by saying that, since it's a musical, I don't really consider it to be a "movie". Ha.

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