I’m not going to bore you with an introduction. Let’s get right to it.
7. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
I was a dinosaur nerd as a kid (and I can still name about a hundred genera as an adult), so of course this classic about an ill-fated prehistoric theme park was going to make the list. But while Jurassic Park is the mother of all dinosaur movies, and I love it for that, I also love its discussion of humankind, specifically our relationship with nature. Should we approach the natural world with humility or ambition? There’s also a neat parallel between the film’s content and its presentation: the story is about doing the impossible by bringing dinosaurs to life, and that’s exactly what the movie itself did, through revolutionary computer graphics that look amazing to this day.
And then there’s Steven Spielberg’s direction, sharp as a raptor’s claw (that’s a figure of speech, paleontologists – I know the real animal is thought to have had fairly blunt claws). He brings out realism and charm from his actors, awe and intrigue from the premise, and of course, suspense in spades. There’s a scene where one of the child characters is dangling from the ceiling and a velociraptor leaps at her from the ground. I know the movie inside out, and I still flinch at that moment every time.
If you haven’t seen Jurassic Park, do yourself a favor and hunt it down. Just be prepared to have much shorter fingernails once it’s over.
6. FUCKING ÅMÅL (1998)
(International title: Show Me Love)
This isn’t the Sweden you know from postcards. This is black winter skies over concrete cityscapes, a world of biting cold and equally biting loneliness. Our main character is a teenage girl who struggles to fit into the vapid youth culture of Åmål, an insignificant Swedish city. Worse, she’s secretly in love with a girl at school who doesn’t seem to notice her.
It’s a small, unassuming teen drama, but the way it’s told captivates me immensely. I don’t know if it’s the acting, the dialogue, or the fact that it’s a same-sex relationship being explored, but it’s something. The movie is of course also bathed in a beautifully bleak atmosphere, to which it owes much of its identity, but atmosphere alone can’t make you deeply invested in a bunch of fairly standard teenage characters, can it? There has to be something about the story itself that makes Fucking Åmål so compelling.
I’ve heard it described as magic realism. Though it doesn’t fit the literary definition of the term, I agree that the movie is both magical and realistic. It’s familiar, lifelike, and yet I remember it as if it were a dream. One of my favorite dreams.
5. STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)
I’ve already mentioned this flick on the blog (to authenticate the superiority of my personal movie genre system) and trust that I’ll write more about it in the future. There’s so much to say about its themes and elusive message. For now, though, I’ll mostly stick to the superficial elements. Starship Troopers is set in a future where humanity has united under the militaristic Federation, and is waging war against an insectoid alien race known as Arachnids. There’s a great focus on the warfare, but an even greater focus on the soldiers as characters, their friendships, rivalries and romances. And as they rise through the ranks, they grow increasingly loyal to the Federation.
So do I, actually. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably gathered that I’m not a fan of militarism, but I have to admit, the beautifully belligerent society presented in this film always manages to seduce me. I want to eat it. The spaceships, the weaponry, the muscular bodies, the slickness and polish of it, even the gore, and the harsh ideology that fuels everything – I want to eat it all. It’s just a delicious movie, a sexy soap opera against a backdrop of wonderfully realized futurism, blood, and swarming CGI bugs. Who couldn’t love that?
(Well, maybe those who read the book first.)
4. ALIENS (1986)
There’s some debate about what should be considered the ultimate sci-fi thriller of the 80s. The Terminator is a strong candidate, but the effects hold it back a bit. However, that’s not at all the case with the director’s next film, Aliens. The titular monsters and the futuristic setting are jaw-droppingly convincing. I first saw the movie as a teenager, very much used to the CGI-laden blockbusters of the 2000s, and was astounded at what could be done without computers almost a decade before my birth.
Just like in The Terminator, though, the spectacle never overshadows the humanity. The human characters in Aliens are very well-defined, and the intrigue of the story comes from each one’s way of dealing with the worst situation imaginable: being trapped in a monster-infested facility on a remote planet. There’s also a strong mother-daughter relationship at the core of the story, which culminates in possibly the most thrilling climax of any movie ever.
I should mention that this is a sequel to the equally excellent Alien, and yes, it helps to watch that one first. But I think the sequel has broader appeal. If what I’ve written here has piqued your interest, but you’re not in the mood to watch two slimy monster movies back to back, the geek in me will forgive you if you go straight to Aliens. I will not be so forgiving if you pick the theatrical cut, however. The special edition is practically a must.
3. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
My dad picked this one for movie night when I was twelve. That’s too early for a horror movie about malevolent ghosts, I know, and yet it was also just the right time. I was a scared kid, still not over my fear of the dark, but The Sixth Sense somehow helped me overcome that. It was delightfully scary, cozily scary, and I subsequently learned to associate fear with that coziness. Today I’m a horror junkie who goes out of his way to be scared, and I’ll always cherish that movie night with Dad as the first time I was able to transform fear into something pleasant.
Even taking that out of it, though, The Sixth Sense is a brilliant piece of cinema. Fear is only one of the emotions that drive the story; there’s also great sorrow, love, and joy, and I guarantee that you’ll feel them all. If you think that sounds schmaltzy, rest assured, your mind is going to be just as satisfied as your heart. Not only is the plot insanely clever (please don’t have it spoiled for you), but every scene is filled to the brim with ingenious little touches. It’s one of those movies that feel consummately thought-out, down to every detail.
And to those of you who insist it’s not horror but a supernatural thriller: tell me that again after you’ve watched it alone at night, and we’ll sit down and have a conversation about it.
2. LA VITA È BELLA (1997)
(International title: Life Is Beautiful)
Two decades before Jojo Rabbit, audiences were crying and laughing just as hard at the Holocaust in this Italian masterpiece. Director and writer Roberto Benigni also plays the main part: a kind, fun-loving Jewish father and husband whose world collapses just before the end of World War II. I won’t spoil exactly what happens, but let’s just say that the premise lends itself to both great comedy and great tragedy, and that the movie takes full advantage of both. Still, the mix of genres never becomes distasteful or tone-deaf, at least not in my opinion. Thanks to the subtleties of the direction and script, the opposite emotions work symbiotically rather than cancelling each other out.
But what truly makes the movie is the main character. He first strikes you as little more than a silly prankster, but you gradually learn that he’s using his imagination and sense of humor to cope with the increasingly threatening world he lives in. And when he faces the ultimate horror halfway through the film, he must use those same qualities to help his family survive. He’s caught in the most appalling episode of human history and still holds on to his cheer, because he knows how important it is to the people he loves. He’s one of the bravest characters I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.
Out of all the Holocaust films I’ve seen, La vita è bella is the best. It portrays the ultimate good, the ultimate evil, and everything in between. It portrays humanity. I think every human should see it.
1. THE IRON GIANT (1999)
I was not yet four. My grandma was taking me to the movies, but the tickets for the innocent toddler picture we wanted to see were unfortunately sold out. So Grandma took a chance and got tickets for something slightly more mature, an animated American export that happened to be playing at the same time. Thus, just like in the case of The Sixth Sense, a film that I was probably too young for ended up shaping a part of my identity. Now I wouldn’t give that part away for the world.
The Iron Giant is about a boy in the 1950s who befriends a colossal alien robot and has to keep it hidden from a world sick with Cold War paranoia. The animation combines 2D characters and environments with a 3D model for the robot, but unlike most hybrid-mation movies from around the turn of the millennium, the computer graphics don’t stick out like a sore thumb. The robot is perfectly integrated into the hand-drawn world. Indeed, every frame of the film looks beautiful.
What’s even more beautiful is the message. Okay, the movie has several messages, all of them good, but my favorite is the message of choice. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that every character, including the robot, is faced with difficult choices throughout the story, and what they choose goes on to define them. The villain consistently chooses fear. The heroes are those who try to choose love. That alone is a good life lesson, but the film goes even further by showing that love isn’t always the easy choice. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it’s frightening, and sometimes you can’t do it. But when you do choose love, you’re a hero. You’re Superman. That message is a hundred times stronger than just “be kind, kids”. The Iron Giant actually explores kindness, and shows it to be both the most wonderful and the most difficult thing you can do. I could not have asked for a better movie to mold my toddler mind.
The film’s only downfall is the perplexing lack of female characters. Bar the protagonist’s mother, the cast is entirely male; even the eponymous robot is, for no apparent reason, referred to as a “metal man”. I don’t think this hurts the story, but it’s an undeniable flaw with the product.
Wow, I made it all the way to number one before I went full SJW!