Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Top 10 Favorite Movies (And Why This Is a Problem)

Okay, I thought we’d do a little timeout today, and talk about something very close to my heart. Me!

All kidding aside, this is a question I get asked fairly often. Being someone who is vocal about pop culture and feminism, people ask me a lot what my favorite movies are, as if they’ll comprise some sort of crib sheet for getting the whole strong female character thing.

Unfortunately, they don’t. Sorry.

Look, I’m human, and when I’m honest with myself, the list of my favorite movies doesn’t actually contain a lot of the movies I harp on here. Just because I think a movie’s good and the characters are well written doesn’t mean I necessarily love it. It just means it’s a good example.

These are the movies that I push people to see, though. The movies that I bother my friends incessantly about. The ones that make me think, even if I don’t say it, “You won’t understand me until you see this.”

So, depressing as it may be for me to admit, here’s the list of my top ten favorite movies. You’ll probably notice that there aren’t a lot of female leads in this list. Yeah. We’ll be talking about that in a minute.

10. X-Men: First Class

What can I say, I love me a good superhero movie. And to my mind, until they get around to making that spectacular Jane Espenson written, Joss Whedon directed Wonder Woman or Oracle movie that I’m craving, I’m gonna have to go with this one.

It all comes down to one thing with this movie: the characters. Charles and Erik aren’t just cool superheroes, they’re people, with very real flaws and even realer disagreements. So when it all comes to a head and we see that peace really never was an option, it’s devastating to watch two characters you’ve come to love and love together be split apart by ideologies.

I’m a sucker for a movie that makes me cry and has a man levitating a submarine. Sue me.

9. Wonder Boys

Okay, most of you have probably never heard of this one, and with good reason. It’s not well known outside of nerd circles, and that’s probably because it’s not actually a very well made movie. Oh the acting is excellent and the writing is great, but there’s a fundamental flaw in the storytelling that makes the whole thing a lot more confusing than it needs to be.

Still. This is a movie about writers, about finding yourself, and about eventually giving up and just liking who you are in spite of yourself. And about how sometimes you really just have to man up and make a choice.

It’s also a movie that features Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire making eyes at each other, so if you ever wanted to know what it looks like for Spiderman and IronMan to flirt, you should probably check it out.

8. Braveheart

This is one of the first movies I remember seeing. It’s not that we didn’t watch movies when I was growing up, but we didn’t have a VCR until I was seven, and our television didn’t start getting a non-PBS channel until two years ago. So, this was a momentous thing for kid me.

You have to admit, when you’re watching this, and William Wallace is rallying the troops, you feel something stirring in you. A fierceness, a flood of bravery, and you are so ready to take down those English bastards.

It’s one of those movies that, no matter what the implosion of Mel Gibson’s career may be, I can’t not watch. And I can’t not be thankful that he made it and that I get to see it.

So, thanks, Mel. Now shut up and sit down, you racist jerk.

(I mean Mel, not you, dear reader. You’re lovely, I’m sure.)

7. Miracle

So, I have mentioned that I’ve got a thing for “heart-stirring” movies, right?

Look, everyone’s got a thing, and if mine happen to be stories of underdogs winning, with lots of well-crafted motivational speeches along the way, who’s to judge?

What I like specifically about Miracle, though, is that it’s not about a person, it’s about a team. It’s about how they formed together despite rivalries and difficulties, to become the team that could win. And how the men on this team weren’t the best players. They were the right ones.

Call me crazy, but I think something in that calls to most people. The desire to be the right person for the team, and to know that together we can build something bigger than ourselves. I’m not ashamed of believing in that.

6. Lord of the Rings
I physically cannot leave Lord of the Rings off this list, because if I did, fourteen year old me would reach up and smite me.

For most of my childhood, the Lord of the Rings books were my thing. They were this awesome magical thing that only I understood out of all my friends, and I was smart and authoritative and I loved them. When I heard they were making the books into movies, I was totally nonplussed, because I already knew that movie adaptations suck.

And then I saw Fellowship of the Ring. And then I saw it again. And again. Six times in theaters, in total, ending when we finally bought the DVD, and then a few months later when we bought the extended edition. For a few years, these movies were my life. I lived and breathed them. I wrote embarrassing fanfic about them. I just… How do you not love movies about the little people of the world rising up and doing what the great cannot? How can you not love the heroic sacrifices, the beautiful relationships, and the strength of ordinary people?

You can’t.

5. The Lives of Others

So, this is actually a German movie, that won the 2006 Best Foreign Film Oscar. As my friend Duc can attest, I am totally in favor of this. A lot of people aren’t, though, because another little movie was nominated that year too: Pan’s Labyrinth. Some people are apparently still pissed about that.

Lives of Others is a movie about eavesdropping. It’s about an East German intelligence officer in the last days of the Berlin Wall spying on a progressive playwright and his girlfriend. But it’s really about words and language, and how beauty can change us even when it’s not our own. How the arts are important and should be protected, and that sometimes we have to sacrifice things in order for the truth to be known.

It’s beautiful, and sad, and incredibly honest about a period of German history that most people would prefer to gloss over. Seriously. Watch it. It’ll break your heart, and then put you back together again much better than before.

Twelfth Night (1996)
4. Much Ado About Nothing / Twelfth Night

In my family, collecting Shakespeare adaptations is a full time hobby and one that we take very seriously. We prefer ones by Kenneth Branagh, and we like them to be a little bit interpreted, but remain true to the spirit of the original.

I listed these two specifically because I do have favorites, and these happen to be my all time favorite adaptations, and also because they’re my favorite plays. It works out well like that.

Much Ado About Nothing is the movie that taught me that romance doesn’t have to be sweet and cloying, but that it can be sassy, snarky, and totally grown up. I learned that loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean liking them, and that being witty was a very good character trait to have. Emma Thompson’s Beatrice remains my hero.

Twelfth Night, aside from being gorgeously adapted, and like Much Ado, featuring a ridiculously awesome cast, is the film that taught me to love mistaken identities and people too attached to what they think they should do and also Helena Bonham Carter. Though I was always much more of a Viola than an Olivia.

3. Boondock Saints

In my mind, I understand that this is not actually a great movie. I get that. I can see the flaws in it. But in my heart there’s a chant going on, a chant that basically boils down to, “Screw the haters, this is an awesome movie.”

The little action indie that could, this movie is about two Irish immigrants who hear a call from God and start murdering gangsters in downtown Boston. Part of my love for this movie is undoubtedly that it reminds me of home, and that it’s really a loveletter to the poor and disaffected. But another part of me loves it because the characters are brilliant, the moral stakes are high, and Agent Smecker is beautifully written.

Also, attractive guys shooting gangsters. I can be shallow too.

2. Rang de Basanti

I nearly guarantee that most of you haven’t ever heard of this, and that’s okay. It was a very lauded film in India at the time of its release, back in 2006, but most people outside of the Bollywood sphere have never heard of it. And that’s fair, since it’s about some non-Ghandi figures from the Indian fight for independence and how revolution can spread even now.

Since the Arab Spring, this movie has seemed even more timely. In a nutshell, it’s about a group of Indian students who make a movie about the Indian revolutionaries of the 1920s. Then they become revolutionaries.

But it’s really about a lot more than that. Corruption in the government and how that can affect the lives of innocent people. The value of knowing your own history so that you can better defend it. The line you draw in the sand of how far you’re willing to go, and what it takes for you to cross it.

Oh my gosh it’s an awesome movie. Just. Yes.

1. Chariots of Fire

When I asked my friend Duc what my favorite movie was, in trying to check this list against a reasonably impartial judge, she responded with, “You mean, other than Chariots of Fire?”

And it’s true. This movie is my favorite so far and away that it’s almost ridiculous to talk about others. But if I’m going to explain why, I have to say that, one, it’s a beautiful story lovingly told, and, two, the heroes you have when you’re young will stay with you for life.

The story is a true one, about the 1924 Olympics, and the two British men competing for the 100 meters. But that’s just the surface level. The two men couldn’t be more different. Harold Abrams is a Jewish Cambridge scholar, devoted to getting a law degree and proving that the Jews are not an inferior race by running everyone else off their feet. Eric Liddel is a Scottish missionary, getting ready to go back to China, who loves to run and just happens to be world record fast.

The story that ensues from their meeting and respective journeys to the games is one of devotion, sacrifice, and ultimately, faith. Abrams has faith in winning. Liddel has faith in God.

For me, it’s a personal story, because I’ve been in love with Eric Liddel since I was little. His love and passion shine through the movie, and through all the biographies of him you can find. He loved to run, but he loved God more. He said of running, “God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” No matter what you believe, that’s a beautiful sentiment. Eric Liddel was a genuinely amazing human being, who stayed in China even after the Japanese invaded in WWII, allowed himself to be put in an internment camp so he could minister to the people there, and died only a few weeks before the end of the war.

After all that, a simple movie about running could seem trivial, but it doesn’t. It’s exactly what it needs to be.

Now that we’ve gotten through all of that, I think we can chat about why I’m worried there aren’t more women on this list, but also why I’m okay with the movies I did choose.

Look, I love heart-stirring movies of epic heroics, fierce battles, and amazing characters making difficult choices. It just so happens that most of the movies like that are about men.

I’m not happy about this, and I never said it was okay. In fact, I find it pretty freaking awful. I want there to be more amazing movies with women in the lead. I want a Wonder Woman movie, an epic all-women action franchise, battles between good and evil led by women. Those movies just don’t quite exist yet for me.

I didn’t want to doctor this list in any way, to make myself seem more cultured or worldly, or even to get more women on here. I want you to see exactly what movies I think have earned a spot, not the ones I feel should have. As much as I try, I just don’t love Alien the way I love Wonder Boys, or Braveheart, or especially Chariots of Fire. Sorry, it’s just not happening.

And it’s too early to tell if Hunger Games is going to make this list, or Brave, or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I just don’t know yet.

But I hope so. I want this list to be better, because I believe it can be. I just need the movies to be good enough to make it so.

Please watch this movie? Please?

Note: Honorable Mention goes to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I seriously love that movie, even if I do fall a little short of calling it my favorite. But I do love it.


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