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The Shawshank Redemption – a movie list challenge

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

The Shawshank Redemption

Rank: 19
List Appearances: 6/10
Average Rank: 3
Highest Rank: 1, on Sinemia‘s Top 100 Must-Watch Movies & IMDb’s Top 250
Total Final Score: 6900

The Shawshank Redemption came out in the mid-90s to very little fanfare. While it was nominated for awards and high on most critic lists, it made very little at the cinema. It became a cult classic in the years following its release, and it’s no great surprise to see it on this list. It seems that from a user rating point-of-view, the rankings are the greatest for it, which is why it landed so high on this Top 100 list.

I have to admit that my first time seeing Shawshank was only a year ago. I can’t even say why, for sure, except that some movies really require your undivided attention, and I always assumed that it was one of those movies. I had seen The Green Mile at the theatre when it came out, and I couldn’t imagine a better pairing of author and director (Stephen King and Frank Darabont, respectively). I knew Shawshank was the same, but I feared that it would never live up to my expectations. I was right, in the end. While I liked Shawshank after my first viewing, I still think Mile is superior.

The movie opens with Andy Dufresne on trial for the murder of his wife and her lover. Cutscenes show him pulling out a gun from his glovebox, holding a bottle of alcohol, and tears streaming down his face. There is little evidence from the start that he did not murder his wife, aside from a testimony laced with frustration. Andy is a quiet man. His emotionless face gives away nothing, and he takes his prison sentence with a stoicism that leaves the audience uncertain of his innocence. The film is beautiful in its unfolding of the court to the bus transport to the prison itself.

Narration follows these scenes, with Morgan Freeman in his first gig doing voice over work. His soothing voice explains prison life, the first night for new inmates, and introduces the groups.

Prison life is cruel. From cigarette bets to villainous guards to rapists, this prison is a walking cliche. In the standard style of Stephen King, there are clear villains. There is little ambiguity about how the guards relish in their abuse of the prisoners. In the first night, one of the guards beats a new inmate to the point of death. When he is sent to the infirmary, he dies waiting for the doctor.

There seems little hope in this life, though, and we watch Andy through a series of montages. He fights, is beaten, and raped for what seems to be years. Somehow, though, he shows he still holds onto hope, despite Red’s insistence that hope is dangerous. He tells a great truth about how prisoners become institutionalized. That soon you come to depend on the walls of the prison, and when that is taken away, you realize life has left you behind.

The strength of the film is in the other stories it tells, but this last point is the real soul of the movie. When Brooks, a fellow inmate, is sent to the world, he enters a time and place that looks nothing like it did when he left it. He admits in a letter that he had seen one automobile before. Now the streets are filled with them. People are in a real hurry. His letter is read by the actor as we walk through a day in the life of Brooks. The bus ride he takes from the prison has him facing off-center from the camera while the other passengers look out the windows. This perspective is symbolic of his detachment from life. The divide grows as the scenes progress, until the very end when we see Brooks stand atop a table, scratch his name into the wood frame and kicks the table from under him.

Andy and Red’s friendship grows through the film, and it is the gem of the movie. Their interactions, with Red’s natural realism and Andy’s romanticism bring a great balance in the story. You believe these men are near inseparable. But it’s often clear that while he goes through the motions of his day-to-day life, Andy might be holding some secrets. As much as Red knows him, he doesn’t know whether Andy is guilty or innocent until he learns it with the rest of the group, and he certainly doesn’t have any idea about Andy’s future plans.

Shawshank is a beautiful movie, and the central themes of hope and friendship are universal. It is a timeless classic, and it certainly belongs to be on the top 100 movies of all time.

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Back to the Future – a movie list challenge

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

Back to the Future

Rank: 29
List Appearances: 6/10
Average Rank: 33
Highest Rank: 11, on Empire‘s 100 Greatest Movies
Total Final Score: 5310

In 1985, Robert Zemeckis and the folks over at Universal and Amblin Entertainment released a little movie called Back to the Future. It was the first in the trilogy to come and would create a culture zeitgeist. The script, written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and story should never have worked – the idea of a teenager returning to the past to meet his mom who would instantly fall in love with him – but somehow, it worked, and it became an instant classic, in it’s own right. While the sequels are weak by comparison, this first outing in the Time-Machine DeLorean has the right mixture of charm, suspense, and heart. And it holds up even today, 34 years later!

I’ve seen the movie so much over my life. I used to love it as a child, and that love has never diminished. While my interest has shifted over the years (what’s important in a child’s lens is far different than that of an adult), I cannot specifically fault the movie. Of course, some logical questions come to mind now: like why Marty’s parents didn’t get a nicer house at the end of the movie, how Emmett managed to connect the cable to send the lightning into the car at the exact right moment when there are 60 seconds in the minute window given, and how would Marty cope with not knowing a past life he never led. I get in trouble a lot with my husband for overthinking in movies, but I can’t switch off that way. Still, all of this seems secondary. The power of the movie far outweighs these logic flaws.

Back to the Future opens with a camera pan around the mechanisms in Dr Emmett Brown’s home/lab. The burnt toast and piles of disgusting dog food indicate a man who has not been home for days. Through TV broadcasts, a conversation on the phone with Marty, and a yellow canister of plutonium, we get the first clues to Emmett’s state-of-mind, and his dogged focus to see his dream become a reality.

We follow Marty through his day. His band plays and is too loud for a group of tight-mouthed judges. His girlfriend encourages him to release a demo tape of his band, which he is reluctant to do, quoting what we later discover is the same line his father uses. We hear about the clocktower, and how it was struck by lightning 30 years before. We meet the remaining McFlys and the bully, Biff. Little nuggets of information about the past make their way into these events, painting a picture about the way things were, laying the groundwork for Marty’s travel into the 50s, not to mention some of the biggest laughs of the film.

Michael J Fox does an amazing job bringing both credibility and charisma to his role as Marty. Through those first scenes when he lands in 1955, you can honestly believe he is stumbling through a younger Hill Valley. His interactions with the locals are hilarious, and his blank glances at bizarre questions about his life preserver land with perfect comedic timing. I like Eric Stolz (famously replaced by Fox after several scenes had been shot) as an actor, but I cannot see him being able to pull off the part as well as Fox did.

Further to that, I think there are equally great performances from Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, and Thomas F Wilson. Lloyd shines as Emmett, and his acting is filled with the perfect balance of eccentric and lovable goofiness. Thompson as Lorraine is just adorable with her doey eyes and pseudo-innocence. She doesn’t get much to work with, but she spends a chunk of the movie batting her eyes at Marty. I find myself believing her when she kisses Marty in the car, and the awkward encounter is lifted by her admittance that it felt wrong. It just rings true. On the other end, Thomas F Wilson hams up his scenes with all the best screen-chewing villainy he can muster, and you hate him in every scene as the womanizing, buff bully he is.

Crispin Glover, as George McFly, embodies the stereotypical geek that was found in too many 80s movies. He grows through the movie, though, and despite first glance, the film is really to showcase his character arc. Marty doesn’t really change through the whole movie. Instead, he helps George develop a backbone and get the girl. It’s through his actions that the future is ultimately changed.

There is a lot to love about Back to the Future outside its well-paced story and characters (stereotypes and all), including the practical effects, the incredible sound work (for which it won an Oscar – specifically Best Sound Effects Editing), and editing and direction. The music is top-notch, with the iconic “Power of Love” instantly transporting you to the film any time it plays. And it’s a movie for any age, really.

Back to the Future holds up today and there is zero doubt that it is a classic and will remain one for decades to come. While, the other two films cannot quite say the same thing, the first, the original, is among the greatest films ever made, and it deserves its placement on this list.

Lord help anyone who decides to reboot it!

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Die Hard – a movie list challenge

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

Die Hard

Rank: 82
List Appearances: 3/10
Average Rank: 45
Highest Rank: 20, on Empire‘s The 100 Greatest Movies
Total Final Score: 1165.5

There are five movies I consider to be perfect action movies. Those include Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight, Die Hard (though technically an action/triller), and The Professional. What does it take to mark a perfect film? Good characters, a story that hits all the most important tonal marks (love, high stakes, high emotion), and relatively believable (and preferably explosive) action sequences. Die Hard as a franchise may not play by these same rules, but the first film absolutely does.

It’s be a few years since I last watched Die Hard, and I was surprised at how many details were done in the movie. I love that the first conversation of the movie introduces John to walking barefoot, and how that one seemingly inane detail plays out through the entire movie. We meet John McClane (Bruce Willis) as his plane lands in LA. He stands in the airport holding a teddy bear half as big as he is. His limo driver is a chatty man who helps build a picture of why John is here and what choices have led him to this particular juncture. John and his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), are estranged. Her career took off and left him in NYC while she moved to LA to pursue what appears to be a high-ranking position in her company.

Die Hard is one of a few movies in the late 80s and early 90s that focused on working women and the ever-changing dynamic of the family model. Holly is the only working person left in an office full of men and some women who are partying on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile their children are at home with a in-home housekeeper/nanny. It would have been seen as extreme in the year it was made, but now, it seems like it was just progressive, since that’s really the norm.

Not long after Holly and John meet in her office, the group of “terrorists” arrive, and the story shifts to a one-man army. The group are led by the amazing Alan Rickman (RIP), in his feature film debut. It’s hard to believe that last part, because his performance is polished. Bruce Willis looks the action hero part, but he was not the first choice for John McClane. He was more known for his work on comedies, so it seemed like a bit of a stretch, which is equally surprising considering how well he donned the tank top and blue jeans.

As with all action movies, there is a suspension of disbelief on the physics of the action, but not nearly as much as there is in later films. The action is top-notch, with explosions, shattered glass, and ringing gunfire to remind you both the bad guys and John mean business. But what I truly appreciate is the fact that after every encounter, McClane looks a little more broken. He’s able to do incredible feats at the start, but he limps into rooms in the end, bloody and bruised from a few hours of extreme violence. He’s clever, though, and that is what really keeps him alive.

I love Die Hard, and no amount of bad sequels will ever change that.

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The Empire Strikes Back – a movie list challenge #24

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

The Empire Strikes Back

Rank: 24
List Appearances: 6/10
Average Rank: 21
Highest Rank: 2, on Empire’s The 100 Greatest Movies
Total Final Score: 6285

Last week I mentioned that The Empire Strikes Back is a superior film to Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and I meant it. Legendary writer, Lawrence Kasdan, took George Lucas’s first film and built on it, with bigger character development, better conflicts, greater stakes, and more expansive worlds. It is easily my favorite Star Wars movie of all time.

I love that Empire gives the audience a lot of firsts, but it doesn’t necessarily throw its originality in your face. From the icy world of Hoth to the swampy, reptile-infested Dagobah System to Lando’s Cloud City, there is a lot of scenery to look at and enjoy.

From the moment you get a glimpse at Luke on the surface of Hoth, you can almost feel the chill. The unpleasant and cold terrain sets a tone that permeates through the this section. There are a lot of moving pieces, with Luke’s being dragged to a cave and eventual rescue, Han’s plans to leave the base, and Leia coming to grips with that decision, but every single thread holds the same amount of weight and shares the same amount of screen-time. We are finally getting to know these people just that little bit better, and it’s clear they have spent quite some time together as well. It all culminates in the incredible Battle of Hoth, showing Luke commanding with confidence and Han whisking Leia away from her command post.

By contrast, the Dagobah system looks humid and unrelenting, an odd choice to remain when the rest of your people have been obliterated. Yoda trains Luke, and there are some amazing sequences showing him climbing, doing flips, and general awesome feats that are meant to symbolize his strength with the Force. I still love the sequence where Luke moves the ship only to be certain he can’t, which causes him to fail. It is a perfect metaphor for everyone’s lives, the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Unfortunately, we don’t all have Yodas in our life to prove us wrong either.

Han, Leia, Chewie, and C3PO (thankfully with reduced screen-time this time around – did I mention 3PO reminds me of my grandmother, fretting about every little thing? No. Well, he does, the less I hear him the happier I am.) escape the Empire twice once leaving Hoth. The asteroid chase sequence proves how great Han and Chewie are at flying, and Han’s ability to think on his feet. The Exogorth (the giant asteroid worm) sequence is horrifying, complete with suitably terrifying jump scares as well. They entered the cave out of necessity, but left out of even greater need. Apparently there’s a whole history about these space slugs, but I’m pretty happy to know as little as possible. I can’t imagine being stuck in another creature’s body. *shudders*

The highlight of the film is Lando’s Cloud City. It is a gorgeous locale with rich, vibrant colors to contrast the extreme climates of the other two locales. The introduction of Lando Calrissian is perfect, and he fills the screen with as much charm, and perhaps more, as Han. His betrayal and subsequent reverse betrayal seem characteristic of the qualities Han may well have possessed in the first film. He protects his people, first and foremost, and in a way that seems heroic. Cloud City also features the best dual of the trilogy and the upsetting freezing of Han.

I could gush about the movie for hours, but I think it’s pretty obvious I love this movie.

 

Next up on my review list is Die Hard. Geez, that’s going to be a tough one to watch. (hahaha)

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Star Wars: A New Hope – a movie list challenge #9

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

Star Wars IV: A New Hope

Rank: 9
List Appearances: 8/10
Average Rank: 30
Highest Rank: 4, on Ranker‘s The Best Movies of All Time
Total Final Score: 11088

In 1977, film history was made. Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon unlike anything before, and its importance on film is still felt today. The original trilogy are among my favorite movies of all time. Before I was five, I had seen them at least half a dozen times. I still lament that I never knew that feeling of “Oh my god! Darth Vader is Luke’s father!” because I just knew it before I knew what street I lived on. My first crush was Luke, and by extension Mark Hamill, and I knew his name and Carrie Fisher’s and Harrison Ford’s before I knew my neighbor’s first name (she was Mrs Armstrong). I liked A New Hope, but mostly, I liked Ewoks and Jedis and R2D2 and Yoda, in that order. I was five, after all, and one movie was all the movies. Even now, I love hearing that 20th Century Fox fanfare playing at the start of the movie and getting excited. Dad didn’t even have to tell me. I just knew he was starting it again. I’d exclaim, “Return of the Jedi!” and sit on the couch eagerly waiting for the text scroll to start.

Speaking of text scroll, did you know that George Lucas had to pay $100,000 to put it on at the start of the movie and have the credits at the end? Before Star Wars, the main credits for a movie were at the start for all movies. That’s significant now, because it has become the standard, and credits at the start are definitely not the norm (though the start of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is a brilliant example of the now outdated style).

I have seen A New Hope probably a hundred times. I stopped counting long ago. I haven’t watched it as often in my adulthood, though, due to the tragedy that are the Lucas cuts. The VHS copies I had growing up still sit at home with my mom on the other side of the world, if I ever want to watch the unadulterated versions. I can only hope that one day Disney will re-release them in their original version, for film preservation purposes, but I’m sure that requires some kind of negotiation with Lucas himself.

I still get goosebumps every time the John Williams’s theme starts, and when new ones come, I might even tear up just a tiny bit during that text scroll. I spent so much of my childhood thinking the three were going to be it, that now this idea of one a year is still messing with my sense of nostalgia. I’m sad that soon that joy I felt at the mention of Star Wars might diminish with time. There are now more movies out that aren’t necessarily needed (a la Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story), though they still have some merits (Rogue‘s battle sequence on the beach is amazing, as is Solo‘s Kessel run). I recognize that my nostalgia gets in the way of me enjoying some of the newer films. I also recognize that a large number of the world’s population have never watched a single film, and to those people, I say, “Don’t.” There’s a reason they haven’t watched it, and being forced to watch this zietgeist of a movie can only end in disappointment.

I sat down to watch A New Hope this week in preparation for this review, and while I have recounted a lot of my personal experiences, I do want to talk about the merits of the movie and why I absolutely agree it should be in the Top 100 of all time.

A New Hope is a great introduction into the Star Wars universe and is brimming with colorful characters, aliens, and worlds, though it is not the best of the series. The superior film is Empire Strikes Back, for many reasons, but I will get into that next week. For now, I want to talk about what I think makes Star Wars so great and the reason for its rabid fan-base.

It was the first accessible space opera and science fiction movie ever made, and more importantly, the best production to that day. There’s something to be said about practical effects. The older Star Wars hold up more than the Anakin trilogy, because there was very little reliance on visual effects as we know them now. That’s what makes the changes harder to swallow because the addition of CG pulls you out of the magic of the original movie. There was clear meticulous detail in bringing to life the space ships and droids and sets. From the vastness of space in the opening scene, to the claustrophic corridors of the ships. When Darth Vader walks through that foggy door juxtaposed against the stark white interior of Leia’s ship, when the music shifts into the low dun-dun-dun, you know he is the baddest of the bad.

The cast of characters are fleshed out in some way. Leia is a fierce warrior, and despite her capture, she has zero qualms about berating or belittling her captors. When she grabs a blaster and commands Han and Luke into the garbage chute, her authority is felt and believed. She is a force to be reckoned with, and she is certainly no princess. As a young girl, I looked up to Leia as an example, and I know many other girls and young women did as well. Han and Luke were one-dimensional in A New Hope, but while Han was the snarky comedic relief (“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky), Luke bore the weight of destiny on his shoulders. He had barely had time to learn to feel the Force before he lost his only teacher.

By extension, I think the now overused concept of finding out you’re special is a theme that connected with a lot of the audience. I don’t know a kid that isn’t certain he/she were adopted at some point in their lives. Or at least a long lost relative of Merlin or King Arthur, destined to some day discover some innate power or gift that they didn’t know they had. Luke, with his transformation from reluctant farmer to destroyer of a Deathstar, was the embodiment of that desire. And really, with that and space battles and lazer swordfights (yes, I know, they’re lightsabers) and Millenium Falcons, what more could you want?