Blog from November 2021

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Movie Recommendations with Brief Summaries
November 18th, 2021 | View Post
I went through about 400 movies from a few different lists I have and picked 10 of my favorites. I hope you'll find them interesting and cinematically appealing.

After making this list, I realized that pretty much all of them are about overcoming adversity, generally where there is some sense of massive injustice (racism, sexism, authoritarianism, etc.). Most of the main characters are facing seemingly insurmountable odds, but then through some rather substantive change to their character wind up overcoming those odds. ...or in a few cases, they do not, but rather fall graciously so that others around them gain some benefit from their plight.

I'd guess they're all pretty famous in one sense or another and so at the very least, they should be entertaining to watch. But just to note that they all focus on pretty dark topics and a few of them have rather sad and tragic endings. I suppose one might say they're "powerful" movies, but I just happen to really enjoy them all.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Shawshank is almost a cliche of a "good movie". It’s remained the #1 highest ranked movie on myriad movie review sites for decades now. It’s beautifully directed, it’s beautifully edited, the cinematography is just spectacular, and the story is extremely touching. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a guy (Tim Robbins) who goes to prison for killing his wife and his experience inside -- mostly the platonic love he strikes up with another man (Morgan Freeman) over their shared experience within the prison. It was actually a short story by Stephen King. If I recall, the movie wasn’t a huge hit in theaters, but went on to be extremely successful in time.

American History X (1998)
I would argue that this is perhaps the best exploration of racism ever told through cinema. It’s an absolutely brilliant movie starring Edward Norton. He plays a skinhead who grew up as a brilliant and “normal” kid until his father happens to be killed by a group of African Americans. From that point on, he holds this horrible hatred in his heart against the entire race of people. He eventually comes to see the error of his ways, but it’s the path of destruction he leaves in the wake that the story is really about. It’s both a beautiful and awful movie at the same time. It has a few very hard scenes to watch, but it’s truly an amazing movie. I remember showing this movie to a girl a few years ago. As I recall, she cried pretty hard at the end of it.

La Vita É Bella (Life is Beautiful) (1997)
This is a beautiful Italian movie by writer/director/actor Roberto Benigni; he plays the lead role in it. It’s basically about a whimsical, fun-loving, Jewish-Italian man who falls in love with a woman just before WWII. They have a child together and then the war breaks out. As Italy was part of the Axis powers, he winds up having to protect his son from being taken and killed by the Nazis/fascists. That being said, it’s not your typical Nazi movie. Instead, the movie is about the father not wanting his son to be traumatized by the events around them. So he basically convinces his son that it’s all a big game that they’re playing with the storm troopers. In short, it’s about the limitless love a parent can have (or should have) for their children. And like the previous one, it has a tendency to make people sob.

V For Vendetta (2005)
I actually just rewatched this movie last week for probably the 20th time. It stars Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving and is basically about a dystopian future version of England that has descended into full authoritarianism. It’s very similar to some kind of Orwellian dystopia where the government feeds people constant propaganda, people live under the strictest of rules, and any kind of dissenting voices are met with prison or death. That is, until the main character decides that he’s going to implant an idea into the society and see it rebel. It’s very loosely based upon Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the British Parliament back in 1605. Suffice to say, he wasn’t successful and his death was rather brutal. Most former Crown countries (New Zealand and Australia, for example) still celebrate the event to this day; I’m not really sure why the United States doesn’t. Anyway, it’s yet another movie of challenging the authority of the state and refusing to remain silent to the pacified masses all around oneself.

Paths of Glory (1957)
If you like Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut, etc.), I believe this was his first feature length film. The movie is about a regiment of soldiers in the trenches of WWI who can’t advance because of ensuing German gunfire (despite orders to do so). The general is furious and decides to implement the ancient tactic of "decimation" (which if you’ve never heard of, is where the Romans would take 1 man from every 10 and just execute them for any number of slip-ups that the army unit may have been part of). The men who were picked, however, were actually NOT cowards and in fact had run directly into machine gun fire in an attempt to follow their orders. Now they’re to be executed because of the slip-ups of other men. The larger story is essentially about soldiers who were routinely executed during WWI for “cowardice” simply because their brains broke. It would be another 10-20 years before we learned the science behind this, but these men were actually suffering from acute PTSD that had manifested itself in any number of physical ways. Unfortunately, and during this particular war, they would have just been executed for this kind of “behavior”.

Count of the Monte Cristo (2002)
Yet another of these similar stories. This is probably the most famous betrayal and revenge story ever told; it’s ultimately about a prison break. It was originally written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas (a Haitian descendent of former slaves) and has been made into several different movies and miniseries over the last 100 years. The 1934 is also pretty well regarded, but I think the 2002 version is just much more exciting and interesting. Anyway, this movie is actually cited in both The Shawshank Redemption and V For Vendetta and actually co-stars the original Dumbledore (Richard Harris).

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
This happens to be one of those stories I really love and was Harper Lee's "great American novel". It's probably the quintessential fictional story about racism in the deep south and is about an African American man who is falsely accused of raping a Caucasian woman. He’s put on trial and nobody will defend him save for Atticus Finch (which incidentally is my dog’s name). Anyway, the movie version of this story is every bit as great as the book itself and Gregory Peck is pretty awesome in it. If you’ve never seen it before, I think you might like it.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
This was my most favorite movie for a very long time, though I think at this point in my life there are probably many others that have eclipsed it. Still, it’s a truly wonderful movie and will certainly take you back into cinematic history given the age of the film. It’s directed by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and stars Jimmy Stewart (who was basically the Tom Hanks of his time). It’s about this really ambitious younger man who is eager to improve the political situation in his home state. He runs for Congress and ultimately gets the position, but is quickly used as a pawn in a pretty horrible political scheme. I don’t want to ruin how it ends, but it builds to a pretty wonderful climax and has a pretty famous ending (one that I believe has been parodied a number of times too).

Dead Poets Society (1989)
This one is more of just a feel-good kind of movie. I remember seeing this movie shortly after it came out and it was just one of those movies that tends to have an impact on young, impressionable minds. It’s basically about a teacher at a fancy prep school who teaches the kids to always challenge authority figures rather than accepting whatever they’ve been told. I don’t know if it was Robin Williams’ most famous role or anything, but it was certainly one of his most endearing ones and is pretty beloved. You’ve probably seen the ending parodied in a bunch of other movies and TV shows; it’s pretty famous.

Good Will Hunting (1997)
This happens to be another one of Robin Williams’ more endearing roles and one of my very favorite dramas. It was actually written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were in their early-mid 20s. It’s basically about an orphaned kid (Matt Damon) who grows up in the slums of Boston and turns out to be a mathematical genius. He’s lived a rough life and so he doesn’t have any kind of formal education and typically resorts to violence to solve his problems. He gets arrested one day and is forced to spend time with a therapist/psychologist (Robin Williams). He winds up meeting a girl and ultimately falling in love with her, but because he doesn’t have the emotional capacity to love, he doesn’t know what to do. Anyway, the movie focuses on a bunch of tough social and emotional issues.