Top 10: Favorite Movies

It’s really hard to narrow down my exact favorite movies, there are so many I love that it’s hard to choose from. Sometimes these picks change throughout the years, but most of these have remained constant.

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1. The Lord of the Rings

I was in 4th grade when the trilogy began, but I wanted nothing to do with them. I wasn’t a fan of Harry Potter (I know, blasphemy…) so I didn’t think anything fantasy would be up my alley. But one day I borrowed them from a neighbor’s house, and now nearly ten years later they still remain my absolute favorite films of all time. (I count them as one, because after all, that’s what Tolkien intended with the books!) As a whole, I really am not a big fan of the fantasy genre. But something about this good vs. evil story absolutely captivates me. I can’t put into words how much Frodo’s journey means to me.

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2. King Kong

A lot of people don’t like Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic monster movie. Perhaps I am a bit biased, with him being one of my favorite directors, but I absolutely love what he does with the story. Jackson creates a deeper relationship between Kong and Ann.The classic monster movie is turned into a beautiful love story. The CGI technology is absolutely breathtaking, Andy Serkis’ incredible motion capture work as Kong allows for an infinite range of emotions for the character. I can’t help but cry at the ending every single time.

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3. Amadeus

I first saw parts of this in high school, on a whim during a vocal class. When I rented it at home I was floored by the story of Salieri’s jealousy and Mozart’s incredible music. I had never really explored his music before, and it is quite a marvel to hear it in this film, along with Milos Forman’s exceptional directing.

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4. Raging Bull 

Something about Raging Bull really captivates me. Not only is the directing so artistic, nearly operatic at times , but Robert De Niro’s performance is nothing short of stunning. I’ve written about it before here, but that scene where Jake LaMotta is in jail touched me for so many reasons. Robert De Niro does an incredible job of portraying the lonely boxer that spirals into his own self-destruction.

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5. When Harry Met Sally

It’s one of the most charming and funniest romantic comedies of all-time, what’s not to love? And Billy Crystal is absolutely adorable as Harry Burns. I think everyone wants a relationship like theirs.

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6. Big Fish

I think this is one of Tim Burton’s best work, perhaps because it is so un-Tim Burton-y. I saw it when I was younger, but loved it upon rewatch. The scene where Billy Crudup tells a story to his dying father, after hating his dad’s stories for so long, will always touch me. Big Fish is fantastical fun but also an emotional story of family mortality.

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7. Jaws 

As I wrote in my childhood movies post, Jaws was one of the first movies that really got me into the movies. The perfect summer movie, I watch it every 4th of July. This classic never fails to thrill, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

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8. Paper Moon

Paper Moon is a mix of an old-fashioned caper, funny road-trip movie, and a heartwarming family drama. It is the perfect mix of all those different genres. Ryan O’Neal is a charming thief, and has such sweet chemistry with it’s daughter. It’s actually quite heartbreaking to watch if you know their real life relationship.

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9. The Godfather

I had put off watching The Godfather for a really long time, and I don’t know why. I obviously knew about it from the hundreds of pop culture references in other films or television shows. I knew it was highly regarded, (It was #1 on the IMDb Top 250 for years, has 100% on rottentomatoes.) But I just never got around to seeing it until I  was in college. I quickly grew a great appreciation for Al Pacino’s work and the film itself. With incredible filmmaking, and a powerful story on a captivating Mafia family, it’s a cinema classic for a reason.

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10. An American Werewolf in London 

For as many of the scary moments this film has, it has an equal amount of hilarious moments. Making this not just a horror film but a black comedy was a perfect choice, because the film does both so well. You can also appreciate Rick Baker’s incredible makeup work and practical effects. That ending nails the perfect genre mix – a tragic death cut to The Marcel’s bopping “Blue Moon”.

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Top 10: Child Performances

Can children, with little life experience as adults, reach the same heights of incredible performances as their older peers? Does their optimism and lack of self- consciousness leave them open for expressing themselves without fear? (Something that adult actors need to achieve to succeed.) These child performances prove that some children are just as capable as delivering incredible performances as adults.

1. Henry Thomas (Age 11) – E.T.

To make E.T. work, you needed a young actor who could form a connection with the animatronic puppet, to make the world believe E.T. was a living thing. Steven Spielberg is known for his ability to get great performances out of children (Drew Barrymore of course, also for E.T. and others in this list) Henry Thomas is able to create Elliot’s loneliness that transforms when he establishes such a heartfelt and passionate bond with his friend. Look at his incredible audition tape (auditions are not easy, even for adults. The reader usually doesn’t give you much emotion to feedback on. You have to muster the relationship/reactions yourself.)

2. River Phoenix (Age 15) – Stand By Me

River Phoenix was an actor taken from us far too soon. The depth shown in his early performances shows what he would have accomplished as an adult actor. He seemed wise beyond his years in his role as Chris Chambers, the boy unable to escape his label as a rebel. He portrayed insecurities and complexities with an adult-like wisdom, something very rare in a child actor.

3. Christian Bale  (Age 13) – Empire of the Sun 

Again proving his penchant for finding and working with child actors, Steven Spielberg discovered Christian Bale, one of the finest actors of our generation. Young Christian Bale carries this near three-hour movie, often having to act alone. Jamie goes from a young enthusiastic (but spoiled) boy, to a shell-shocked young man scarred by war. In his childhood performance, we can see the seeds of what an incredible actor he’d become as an adult.

4. Jode Foster (Age 12) – Taxi Driver

Jodie Foster, even at her young age, already had over 30 credits behind her, far more than even some of her adult contemporaries. It’s quite hard to believe she’s only 12 years old in this film. But she is indeed a young girl, a girl who is filled with both an adult-like world-weary cynicism and youthful vitality.While Taxi Driver has some hardcore material for a young kid, (she is, after all, playing a prostitute) Jodie Foster displays an almost uncomfortable acute understanding of her character Iris. Jodie Foster certainly more than holds her own with Robert De Niro.

5. Jamie Bell (Age 14) – Billy Elliot

For the title role of Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell brought his exceptional acting skills as well as dance skills for the confused and sensitive character. He truly captures the tough boy with a gift, the simmering anger of someone who just wants to break free.

6. Haley Joel Osment (Age 12) – A.I. Artificial Intelligence 

As with other Steven Spielberg films, the job of the young actor is to carry the film. But not only does Haley Joel Osment (also known for his fantastic performance in The Sixth Sense) have to be the lead, but he also has a complex role in the film. He has to pretend to be a robot, a young boy playing a machine who comes grapples with human feelings, wanting to be something he is not. To understand and portray those abstract thoughts shows his talent at such a young age.

7. Saoirse Ronan (Age 12) – Atonement

Briony quickly becomes a character you love to hate, but Saoirse Ronan brings a powerful strength to Briony. Though she seems dreamy with wide-eyed innocence, Saorise gives Briony a fierce, calculating, and intimidating essence. Saoirse brings to life a dedicated but fanciful young girl who perseveres without knowing the consequences of her actions.

8. Natalie Portman (Age 11) – Leon: The Professional 

Like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Natalie Portman takes on a mature role with equally mature material. (there’s even a bit of pedophiliac sexual tension between Leon and her character…seen in the cut scene below) Left an orphan after her parents are killed, she is raging, she is wild, she is dark. This is a role with material that is far beyond most children’s understanding, but somehow at her young age Natalie Portman is able to create a fully realized young girl with a lot of demons inside.

9. Tatum O’Neal (Age 9)  – Paper Moon

Tatum O’Neal plays a tough cookie in the Depression-era film, winning an Oscar for this role. She was nominated for Best Supporting, but really she is the lead actress. With her searing glares but inner broken spirit, and fantastic banter and chemistry with her real-life dad (Ryan O’Neal), she is deserving. (But yes, so was Linda Blair who was also nominated against her that year…) It breaks my heart to know what Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s relationship was really like.

10. Hailee Steinfeld (Age 14) – True Grit

Haliee Steinfeld managed to bring strength and feistiness that Mattie Ross deserves with a rich undercurrent of vulnerability. A child trying so hard to grow up and be an adult for the sake of avenging her father. What is most impressive is that she completely holds her own against her famous co-stars, just look at this scene below with Jeff Bridges as an example. She doesn’t fade into the background, she stands out loud and proud.

 

Scene Sound Off: Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarantino is known for being a master at harmonizing incredible filmmaking with fantastic music, and his 1992 film debut Reservoir Dogs shows the beginning of his fine musical work.

The juxtaposition of positive music against negative shots – upbeat music playing against psychotic torture – is something that is used a lot, in trailers and recent films. (like Orinoco Flow in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) But none have executed it so well as Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino had chosen “Stuck in the Middle With You” specifically for this scene, not only does it fit rhythmically but also lyrically.

Mr. White dislikes his heist partner, believing the unpredictable and unprofessional Mr. Blonde to be a “fucking psychopath” because he enjoys violence. For Mr. White, violence is a necessity of the job. For Mr. Blonde, he relishes in it.

Michael Madsen is deliciously and playfully diabolic as Mr. Blonde. He tells the cop how amusing it is for him to torture a cop. He lets him know that even if he prays for a quick death, he won’t get one.

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He takes his razor out of his shoes, then switches gears by gleefully asking the cop “You ever listen to K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies? It’s my personal favorite.” The radio announcer gives an introduction for the Stealers Wheel song as Mr. Blonde goes over and checks out Tim Roth’s character, Mr. Orange. The song starts kicking in.

Mr. Blonde starts his dance routine, really more of a half-assed and mocking shuffle. Madsen executes this perfectly, most actors might choose to go over the top with this, “look how scary I am!” but Mr. Blonde doesn’t really give a shit, he’s just enjoying this, taking his time to prolong his victim’s fears. Kirk Baltz, as Officer Nash, perfectly projects the utter fear and bewilderment his character faces, only through his eyes. He certainly, as the song says, has “got the feeling that something ain’t right”.

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The camera has the background spinning around at the closeup of Nash, projecting the frightened thoughts running through his head. The groan that the officer lets out is chilling, especially when it blends in with the upbeat toe-tapping music. The camera and background remains still on the shot of Mr. Blonde dancing, he is calm, cool and collected. This is his favorite thing to do. The dancing delays the unknown but terrifying torture awaiting Officer Nash.

Then a sudden break in dancing as Mr. Blonde violently slashes the Officer’s face, then grabs him as the camera glides away. The camera holds on the warehouse as we hear the officer’s screaming off screen, allowing the audience to imagine what kind of violence is happening. (Such restraint is not always shown in other Tarantino films, but it was a very good choice here.)

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Madsen enters the frame, and we see him holding the Officer’s ear. And, in true Mr. Blonde fashion, he laughs and makes jokes, talks into the severed ear “Can you hear that?” We then follow Mr. Blonde from the warehouse to his car and back into the warehouse in one continuous shot.

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We then follow Mr. Blonde as he walks outside. The music fades away the farther he gets from it, but we still hear other jovial background noise like kids laughing. It’s frightening that no one can hear the agonizing terror going on inside. Mr. Blonde walks back in, holding gasoline. We know the next torture waiting for the officer. He enters the warehouse and we hear the music again. Tarantino really did time exactly, that part of the song would’ve been heard exactly in the time it took to come back inside!

Mr. Blonde dances some more, the camera starts to circle around the two characters as he splashes the gasoline on Officer Nash, some of it hitting the camera. We are so close to them, the camerawork really makes us feel “stuck in the middle” with them. Mr. Blonde pulls the tape off and Officer Nash starts screaming, pleading for his life. The line about him having children was ad-libbed, and apparently made Michael Madsen, a new father at the time, have to stop the scene overcome with emotion.

And then, just as Mr. Blonde is about to light the flame, he gets shot. The camera cuts to Tim Roth as Mr. Orange, gunning Mr. Blonde down. This is one of the best surprises in film, leaving you utterly shocked. Throughout the scene, you forget Mr. Orange is even there.

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Between the song and the violence and Mr. Blonde’s dancing, you are completely swept up in that action. To top it off with Mr. Orange’s hiding-in-plain sight reveal, this scene leaves you stunned.

Watch it below!

Top 10: Coming-of-Age Movies

Growing up is terrifying, confusing, exhilarating, and heartbreaking all at the same time. It is truly the best of times and the worst of times. And once it’s gone, you can never get it back. At times growing up can be pretty hard to navigate. But luckily there are films that so finely depict the adolescent experiences, those turning points in life that everyone goes through.

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1. The Breakfast Club

Really, any of John Hughes movies can be on this list. His films were the defining films of the 80s and the teenage experience. Whether you’re a geek, a jock, a rebel or the popular girl, underneath it all we are all going through the same struggles of youth. The stereotypes strip away to reveal that we are all just as confused and troubled as the next person. Funny, sincere and insightful The Breakfast Club is the quintessential high school movie.

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2. Stand By Me

Nothing means more to a kid than summer. No school, no responsibilities, just the freedom to have adventures with your friends during those hot sticky days and breezy summer nights. But these group of friends are growing older, heading to middle school now, and the end of summer means the end of their innocence is looming. And the most definitive way to mark the end of innocence is the boy’s adventure to go look at a dead body for the first time. Click here to see more thoughts on this renowned coming-of-age film.

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3. The Graduate 

Growing up doesn’t end as soon as you graduate high school, it doesn’t even end when you’re in college. Graduating college is just as confusing of a time, probably one of the most imperative moments where you grapple with the end of youth and the beginning of true adulthood. Benjamin Braddock deals with that awkward post-grad summer in Mike Nichols’ stylish classic. See more of my thoughts on The Graduate here and here.

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4. Boyhood

Quite possibly one of the most genius achievements in cinema. If you don’t know by now, Boyhood was filmed with the same actors over a period of 12 years, so we literally see them growing up before our eyes. We follow Mason from the age of six to eighteen. And it is quite a marvel to see him grow. Boyhood is not a sappy look at the typical milestones of growing up, but instead an intricate portrait of the human experience, true-to-life and fascinating. This film will truly stand the test of time.

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5. The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now is an authentic and sensitive portrayal of teenagers, wonderfully led by Miles Teller accompanied by Shailene Woodley. . This isn’t a typical teen movie, it’s not quite a love story but more about loving yourself. It is honestly mature and moving, but also funny and charming. Hands down one of the best teen movies in years, and something that John Hughes would be quite proud of. See my full review here

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6. Ordinary People 

I think this movie is incredibly overlooked as a coming-of-age film. Perhaps because most coming-of-age stories deal with innocence being lost, and this is innocence being regained. We enter the life of Conrad Jarrett, home from a stay at the mental hospital after a suicide attempt. He is dealing with depression after the death of his brother. And having an emotionally stunted mother doesn’t help. Conrad deals with returning to high school and therapy, adjusting to life after “the accident”. Being a teenager does not mean you are susceptible to mental illness or depression. And Ordinary People shows the importance of regaining what you have lost in dark times, to see the light for your only time of youth.

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7. Perks of Being a Wallflower

The book is immensely popular, and the film does it justice. Of course, it helps that it was directed and written by the book’s author. And thank goodness it was, because this faithful adaptation boasts a great soundtrack and strong performances. Some of the dialogue can be a bit eye-roll inducing to it’s overexposure (We get it – you felt infinite. I’ve seen the quote 1,000 times on Tumblr.) But most notably, it is one of the most sensitive and honest portrayals of teenage angst, bravely delving into issues of incest, depression, and homophobia that other teen films rarely-if ever- touch upon.

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8. Say Anything

The 80s brought a slew of incredible teen films, and Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything is one of them. And you can’t get more 80s than John Cusack holding up a boombox to a Peter Gabriel song. The summer after high school is another confusing time, you’re old life as you knew it is ending- something new and exciting (or something new and awful) is on it’s way, changing your life completely. And what happens when you meet the love of your life the during that life-altering summer? What happens if you’re both from two completely different background? School vs. love vs. obligations to parents…Say Anything covers it all in this heartfelt romance.

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9. The Last Picture Show

The three teen characters in The Last Picture show are fresh out of high school in the year 1951. , Confined in their dead-end town, they are in a rush to grow up as quickly as possible. Jacy deals with her budding sexuality and quest to lose her virginity, in the wake of her realization that she is the prettiest and most sought-after girl in town. Sonny has an affair with the depressed wife of his football coach. Duane enlists for the fight in Korea. Their community is in shambles, and so are they. They only realize before it’s too late that their youth is truly over. The picture show is gone, no more movies or fun at the pool hall.

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10. Mermaids

Mermaids is a charming, funny, and heartwarming film led by Winona Ryder in her adolescent prime. The perfect picture of the moody teenager. But her angst has a sweetness and innocence to it. She deals with her flamboyant mother, her desire to be the most devout Catholic (even though she’s Jewish) and the temptation of a sexy older groundskeeper. Not only a great coming-of-age story, but also a mother-daughter story that perfectly depicts the friction that mothers and daughters go through during those tough teenage years.

Scene Sound Off: Cape Fear

Martin Scorsese directed a remake of the 1962 film Cape Fear in 1991. Robert De Niro starred as the sadistic psychopath Max Cady, who after serving 14 years in prison for rape seeks vengeance on his former public defender, Sam Bowden. Cady blames Bowden for purposefully sabotaging his defense in order to make sure he went to jail.

One of the most pivotal elements of Scorsese’s remake is the added dynamic of Cady’s obsession with the Bowden’s young 15-year-old daughter. This relationship was not as explored in the original film. De Niro’s Max Cady manipulates young Danielle as another way to get revenge on his lawyer’s family. It also adds a pedophiliac perversion to Max Cady’s already sexually deviant character. It is Danielle’s narration that opens and closes Cape Fear, and the film can be viewed viewed through her relationship with Cady even more so than Sam Bowden’s.

The most pivotal scene in portraying this relationship, and perhaps the most notorious scene in the film, is the school scene. Max has entered Danielle’s school, posing as her new drama teacher. He meets her at the theatre where he, in a way, acts out and directs a scene of his own to coerce and seduce young Danielle. It is a quiet scene that halts the action and stops the audience dead in their tracks with it’s lingering sexual uneasiness.

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But what is so fascinating is that one of the most intense moments in the scene, where Danielle sucks Max Cady’s thumb before kissing him, was completely improvised by De Niro. Juliette Lewis knew from the script that De Niro would come close to her, possibly kiss her. But that moment was completely off-the-cuff. De Niro approached Scorsese about doing it, but did not let Juliette Lewis know. Scorsese set up two cameras simultaneously to get both actor’s reactions. This scene shows the power of improvisation works just as well on film as in theatre, and is masterfully acted by both De Niro and Lewis.

We see the power of Max Cady’s manipulation through his charismatic wickedness topped with fallacious southern charm. He waxes poetic about ecstasy and paradise, (He wants her moment ecstasy to be in his upcoming seduction, reach paradise through him.) talks philosophy to prove how wise he is. He appeals to her teenage struggle, validating her as a person to get on her good side. Her parents don’t understand her at all. But he does. He can be the one adult that really listens to her because he knows what she’s going through.

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After he is done getting inside her head, he then appeals to her desires. He asks her if she thought about him last night and if he can put his arm around her. We really see how fantastic Juliette Lewis is at portraying this young girl. Not only through the costuming, with her childish barrettes and mouthful of braces. But also in her mannerisms, the bashful avoidance of the eyes, the nervous giggling, they all fit a teenage girl to a tee. You can read so clearly both the embarrassment and joy she feels at receiving an older male’s attention. (Of course, it also helped that she had a real life crush on De Niro) It’s forbidden, scary, and exciting for her.

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When De Niro walks towards her, he slowly peers, taller than us, into the frame. As if we are in Danielle’s shoes, we see it from her point of view. The wolf looming in for his prey. The thumb-sucking moment is a genius idea of De Niro. There is something far more perverse about that than just kissing. This sexual predator convincing her to do this unusual act of penetration.

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The film opens with the narration of “My reminiscence. I always thought that for such a lovely river the name is mystifying: ‘Cape Fear’. When the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end and real life would come crashing in.”

This may not be in the night, but the moment is enchanting and filled with the sexual mist of summertime for Danielle. The real life that comes crashing in happens towards the end of the film, when she realizes who that charming man turned out to be. It shows how easy adults can manipulate young girls sexually. Here was a girl just on the cusp of dealing with newly sexual feelings manipulated by this evil man. The end of her innocence was approaching (After all, her father declares in the film that “she’s not a child anymore”) and thusly ended in reign of Max Cady’s terror over her family.

Watch this engrossing and eerie scene below.