Saturday, March 28, 2009

84. Horse Feathers

84. Horse Feathers (1932)
Directed by Norman McLeod

The second of four Marx Brothers films on the list and I think this is the first one that could be considered underrated by the general populace. Tighter and funnier than any of their previous films, Horse Feathers marks an incredible improvement on the formulas developed in those films.

Watching a Marx brother’s film is not like watching any other film; the expectations and requirements are completely different. What separates the good ones from the great ones is not the plot lines or the characters, in fact those normally serve to get in the way. What matters are the prevalence of great jokes, the routines, and the set-pieces. As long as those aren’t interrupted too much by plot, secondary characters, and musical routines, then we have a successful film.

Horse Feathers in this regard is extremely successful. With the University setting, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo include gag after gag, filling every scene with something funny. My favorite bits include Groucho’s “I’m Against It” song, Groucho and Chico’s swordfish routine, the revolving door and suitor routine with Groucho/Chico/Harpo, and a classroom set piece that is some of the finest work they ever produced. The classroom scene alone includes the brother’s entire repertoire packed into a solid five minutes.

There is very little that doesn’t work in this comedy, and the football field finale is the perfect capper (or should I say caper) to a great film. If you’ve never watched a Marx Brothers film, then this would be a good place to start.

Favorite Quotes:
[Wagstaff's looking in a microscope]
Biology Professor: What do you think of that slide?
Professor Wagstaff: Well, I think he was safe at second, but it was very close.

Connie: Oh, Professor, you're full of whimsy.
Professor Wagstaff: Can you notice it from there? I'm always that way after I eat radishes.

Retiring President: Eh, by the way, professor, there is no smoking.
Professor Wagstaff: That's what you say.
Retiring President: It would please the faculty if you threw your cigar away.
Professor Wagstaff: The faculty members might as well keep their seats. There'll be no diving for this cigar.

85. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

In what many critics may feel is an absolute shame, Dr. Strangelove is my first and only Stanley Kubrick film on my list. While I enjoy most of his films (The Shining and Paths of Glory especially), Dr. Strangelove is the only one that I have responded greatly to. Without denigrating any particular political parties, Dr. Strangelove is able to garner huge laughs as well as raise a few cautions by accurately satirizing the perilous situation when fallible human beings have access and control of nuclear arsenals.

Dr. Strangelove is odd in that Kubrick chose to film the story as if it were a straight military drama about the cold war (something akin to Fail Safe), while inhabiting that drama with some of the best military and political caricatures ever captured on film. The actors chosen to fill the roles of those caricatures deliver some of the best comedic performances I’ve ever seen.

Front and center is the great Peter Sellers who takes on three major roles in the film and knocks each one of them out of the park. Mandrake, the President, and Dr. Strangelove himself are all intricate performances full of tics, idiosyncrasies, hilarious accents, and great dialogue. Surprisingly though, it’s George C. Scott who steals the show for me.

Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson is an absolute clown. There is no reason that a caricature this broad should work in a film that is shot so seriously, but due to Scott’s all-out performance (there is even a moment he tumbles to the ground like a vaudevillian actor), this character works perfectly. He’s my favorite character in the whole film and his back and forth dialogues with the president zing like an expertly written comedy routine from Abbot and Costello. Along with Sterling Hayden’s General “I deny them my essence” Ripper, I think these are the two most underrated aspects of the whole film.

As it will be with most of the comedy films on my list, the central reason for their inclusion on my list is that they make me laugh, moreso than your typical comedies. That the laughter comes from well-acted characters, great dialogue and hilarious set-ups differentiates it from your everyday sitcom laugh, and makes me not want to live without it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

86. City of God

City of God (2003)
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

City of God is Slumdog Millionaire with the guts and courage to be true to its story. While it contains all the vibrancy and urgency of life that people loved in Slumdog, City of God is faithful to the reality of the hard (godless) situations you find in slums, or in this case the favellas. Instead of throwing in a ‘feel good’ plotline about destiny (without squaring it with the destitution that so many are forced to live in), City of God pulls the viewer into the favella (the Brazilian version of the slum) and requires them to confront the evil, the moral decay, and the struggle to survive that characterize it. This is not a feel good film.

After the first time I watched City of God, I actually fell into a depression that I didn't shake off for nearly three days. I could not believe that the film was based on a true story and that this could really happen in people’s lives. The ability for this film to convey the hopeless and endless circles of poverty and violence is not only powerful, but also dangerous. I caution those who enter into this film, it will challenge you. There are no easy answers here, no trite conclusions, and it’s all the more impactful for that.

I’m going to end this commentary here (even though I haven’t given a plotline or anything) because I think you get the picture of how I feel about it. I wouldn’t want to do without this film because it is a constant reminder about what people will do to survive, how decisions to do the wrong thing can lead to real moral decay, and how hopeless some situations can truly be. It’s a wake-up call to the idealistic, and a punch in the stomach to those with lofty ideas of a blind force of fate and destiny. Perhaps that exists in other places, but not in the City of God.

87. Ordinary People

Ordinary People (1980)
Directed by Robert Redford

Every now and then there is a film that comes along and breaks the normal mold for all that have come before it, Ordinary People does that for the family drama. Gone from this film is the comedy/drama tight walk that Billy Wilder made a living on, the ‘fake’ play dialogue of so many 60’s family dramas, and the “misunderstood” teen angst of Rebel Without a Cause. In place is a dramatic ‘realism’ (that I tend to favor) that is more akin to films like Good Will Hunting and In the Bedroom, than something like Jerry Maguire.

Central to the success of this film is Robert Redford’s stripped down and straightforward direction and the internalized and natural performances. This is the definition of an actor’s film with Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch all deserving Oscar nominations and wins.

As the tragic death of a son strikes the family, each actor perfectly inhabits the way in which each character reacts to the tragedy. Conrad, the surviving son, attempts to commit suicide after his brother dies and must spend the rest of the film returning to normalcy, within society and within himself. Played excellently by Timothy Hutton, Conrad struggles with his feelings and wonders if they will lead him to suicide again.

Conrad’s parents, played by Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, are given the lion share of dramatic scenes, and they do not disappoint. Donald is perfect as the introspective father who doesn’t know how to help his son Conrad. There is such a restrained regret tattooed on the Sutherland’s face during his scenes that you could tell it paints every scene he is given. Mary Tyler Moore delivers the perfect portrait of a mother who was overwhelmed by grief so much that she detaches completely from giving anyone else her love. These roles play refreshingly against type for each actor and they exploit that perfectly in the film.

Filling out the cast is Judd Hirsch who plays Conrad’s psychiatrist. Conrad’s sessions with Judd are the turning points in the script and ultimately provide Conrad with the catharsis and perspective needed to continue on. In a role that could’ve bordered into just another “wise old man” routine, Judd is able to ground the character enough to make the relationship feel real and palpable. It also helps that Judd gets the best line in the film, “A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle.”

By the end, the film finds the perfect ending for all that had gone before it. Sure, there are some faults to the film (I feel there is a little too much Freudian style diagnosis of the characters going on), but they are small and don’t really affect my enjoyment of it. By the time the credits roll, I always feel like I have truly been a member of the family and shared their struggles, trials, and revelations. What more could you ask of a family drama?

Other Essentials: Mary Tyler Moore’s “Tell me the meaning of happy” scene, the awkward family picture scene, Sutherland’s scene with Moore about changing clothes

Thursday, March 26, 2009

88. Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire (1996)
Directed by Cameron Crowe

One of the few romantic comedies that you will find on my list; Jerry Maguire is a fun story featuring some extremely likeable and unique characters. What makes this particular romantic comedy different from the many that I typically dislike is the fact while being a romantic comedy at heart; it really doesn’t play like one at all.

The typical romantic comedy formula is eschewed in Jerry Maguire for kind of an oddball plotline that takes a few unexpected turns and then U-turns. Sure there is still the meet cute and courting process, as well as the woman sidekick with support and suspicion, but there seems to be a willingness to move past such conventions and strike some seriously deep material.

Thankfully, there is no sequence where Jerry is suspected of cheating or something is just misconstrued leading to faux romantic comedy breakup before the happy ending. Instead, Cameron Crowe gives us real insight into the heart of our characters. After the initial wedding (when most films would’ve ended), Jerry is still learning how to truly value Dorothy and the film doesn’t give Jerry an easy ending.

In the end, I liked the parallel between marriage and the sports agent industry. It’s not until Jerry learns true humility and truly what it means to hang in with someone, care for them, desire the best for them, does the film allow him success in either areas. The film is helped enormously by a great performance by Tom Cruise, definitely one of his greatest.

All that and I haven’t even mentioned all the great scenes, quotable lines, and fantastic supporting roles (Cuba Gooding Jr. deserved every bit of his Oscar) that fill out this truly satisfying film. All in all, this is a great story with a great central character with some truly great insight. All reasons I wouldn’t want to do without it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

89. The Sting

The Sting (1973)
Directed by George Roy Hill

For members of my generation The Sting is a film that is often overlooked and passed by. That the inferior Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, also featuring the teaming of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, receives more praise and viewings today is mystifying to me. Where Butch Cassidy has sprinkles of charm, The Sting exudes it. While Butch Cassidy may be interesting in stretches, The Sting is engaging throughout. I find the film superior in nearly every way (save the ‘raindrops’ sequence in Butch Cassidy).

The Sting is a remarkably likeable and enjoyable caper film, that is so lightweight and carefree it would be easy to mistake the film as a simple trifle, when in fact it’s a intricately written piece. I really feel it represents Robert Redford and Paul Newman at their most charismatic and fun. Their interplay with Robert Shaw (in another great performance) is the epitome of natural acting. This is a rewarding watch.

Thankfully, The Sting is lacking any of the inside snark that could sink or float the Ocean’s Eleven films. In fact, the matter of fact wholesomeness in the film is a refreshing characteristic that finds its way into several of the films on my list. It’s my favorite Con/Heist film because the light and wholesome tone to the film makes the twists and turns ‘fun’ rather than ‘deceptive’. It really allows me to enjoy the art of the con and the performance of the con, without the guilt of the con. To those who enjoyed Butch Cassidy, I urge you to re-consider this classic as essential viewing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

90. Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The first Steven Spielberg film to make the list is also my favorite film when it comes to the loss of childhood and the loss of innocence. While the movie as a whole has some serious flaws, Empire of the Sun contains some of Spielberg’s best moments. Its an emotional film; one that often brings tears to my eyes and requires me to spend some serious time reflecting on the events of the film.

Empire of the Sun follows young Englishman Jim Graham (Christian Bale) as he is estranged from his wealthy family when the Japanese invaded Shanghai, China the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. After surviving on the streets of Shanghai for a couple of days, Jim finds himself trying to survive and adjust to life in a Japanese concentration camp.

What makes this interesting story even better is Spielberg’s decision to keep the film in Jim’s perspective. By telling the story completely through a child’s perspective, Spielberg is able to bypass a more pessimistic or cynical view that an adult may have. Instead the concentration camp is a place of awe, when the Japanese planes fly in to the nearby Japanese airbase. It’s a place of ingenuity, when Jim begins to use his smarts to trade for items that he wants. It’s also a place where he witnesses sex, death, betrayal, and even an atom bomb for the first time.

While it would be hard to point out the moment where Jim ‘loses’ his childhood, there is an undeniably cumulative effect to the story that Jim’s loss is indisputable by the end. I am literally at a lost to describe the effect the film has on me, so I'm going to leave you with these few words.

I’ve posted two clips below, and the first scene shows young Jim singing ‘Suo Gan’. By the end of the film, Jim has learned so much about the world, so much about evil, and survival, that this song that sounds so innocent and sweet has now become ironic. The second clip is from the end of the film and it might be a little spoilerish, so if you plan on watching the film, then I would stay away from it. It depicts the grown up Jim wonderfully and always evokes a reaction from me. I’ll end with the translation of ‘Suo Gan’, the celtic song that Jim sings in the first clip and is replayed in the second one. Notice how these words are lovely as a lullaby, but as one begins to learn the ways of the world, they become ironic and a milestone of times gone by.

Sleep my baby, at my breast,
’Tis a mother’s arms round you.
Make yourself a snug, warm nest.
Feel my love forever new.
Harm will not meet you in sleep,
Hurt will always pass you by.
Child beloved, always you’ll keep,
In sleep gentle, mother’s breast nigh.
Sleep in peace tonight, sleep,
O sleep gently, what a sight.
A smile I see in slumber deep,
What visions make your face bright?
Are the angels above smiling,
At you in your peaceful rest?
Are you beaming back while in
Peaceful slumber on mother’s breast?
Do not fear the sound, it’s a breeze
Brushing leaves against the door.
Do not dread the murmuring seas,
Lonely waves washing the shore.
Sleep child mine, there’s nothing here,
While in slumber at my breast,
Angels smiling, have no fear,
Holy angels guard your rest.

Monday, March 23, 2009

91. Aladdin

Aladdin (1991)
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

In a choice that may anger certain readers (one Justin Hawks in particular), Aladdin makes my list as the one Disney musical I would want above all the others. Before casting the opinion aside, hear me out on this one. I’ve taken a lot of time to think about the pro’s and cons of all the Disney musicals and here are the reasons I would take Aladdin above them all. Brace yourself; you may not have thought about these films this much before.

Primarily, I find Aladdin the most emotionally enjoyable and intellectually satisfying of the Disney musicals. I enjoy all of the major Disney musicals, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. What follows is a small dissection of what makes Aladdin the most essential of all four. Some may say I am picking them apart a little too much, but I told you earlier that I ‘enjoy’ them all, and I am here now looking for what differentiates them from each other.

The Little Mermaid is a fantastic film with great music and very likeable characters. However, our heroine must find her satisfaction and enjoyment in the person of someone she hardly even knows. Is the lesson of the film that we should follow blindly (giving up essential parts of our nature) for irrational desires? It all works out in the end (to our delight), but doesn’t a closer examination of the message notch it down a little?

Beauty and the Beast is also a fantastic film filled with great musical moments and likeable characters as well. In fact, It was nominated for an Academy Award, which is not all that surprising considering that it’s seemingly the most mature of the Disney four. Here again, the ultimate message of the film brings it down a few notches. Bill Chambers from says it best, “Belle, the titular 'beauty,' is the archetypal freethinking Disney heroine nonetheless given an ultimatum: this dude or that dude. She doesn't care to end up with Volvo-chinned Gaston because he wants a slave for a wife; meanwhile, she falls for a hot-tempered manimal, but is it any coincidence that he showers her with gifts the whole time? Disney's Beauty and the Beast is about a superficial woman rejecting one superficial man for another who happens to be ugly enough to ennoble her decision. Gaston is the only character honest with himself in this corrupt, self-righteous enterprise, which rewards Belle's patience by having Beast revert to a chiselled Aryan in the denouement.” At least Shrek got it right, Shrek and Fiona needed to remain ogres to retain the true power of the message.

My thoughts on The Lion King are featured here, but let me just add a few notes to it. There is something askew about the message of The Lion King when it supports the “caste” system of the jungle. The central message the movie puts forward is about not running from your past and becoming ‘who’ you are meant to be; but how does this whole “meant to be king” and “circle of life” fit into our society that is primarily a democracy and meritocracy? If we are going to anthropomorphize our animals and praise certain aspects of the animal world (like the circle of life), then I take a little bit of caution to the film’s other messages.

This brings me to Aladdin. While I find the film incredibly enjoyable (due in no small part to Robin Williams’ Genie), its also the most intellectually and thematically satisfying. Here we have two characters who yearn for a “better” world (some might say, "A Whole New World"); Jasmine the Princess yearns to be away from the suffocating traditionalism of the palace while Aladdin dreams to be rid of the suffocating poverty of the slums. Both characters ultimately realize that true freedom isn't being away from their current locations or circumstances; its about pursuing the things you want and love regardless of obstacles, locaton, and circumstances.

It’s to the filmmakers credit that the Genie does not just represent a just a funny sidekick, but represents another character who is in a way shackled and desiring freedom. Aladdin’s decision to use his last wish to free the Genie isn’t just a great moment for the audience (because we like the Genie), but because it completes Aladdin’s character. Aladdin’s freeing of the Genie demonstrates his revelation that his real happiness doesn't lay in wishing for a change in places or circumstances, and thus he turns his wish over to help someone else gain their freedom.

Even Aladdin’s defeat of Jafar plays on the theme of freedom. Whereas Aladdin comes to the realization that freedom doesn’t rely upon power and materials, Jafar’s ultimate ruin comes from his unending desire to aquire them. Jafar is defeated, not because Aladdin is stronger, but because he Aladdin is able to pay on this desire, and trick Jafar into enslaving himself. That my friends, is a lesson for the ages.

If you like any of the other Disney musicals more than Aladdin, that’s okay with me. I’m not on a crusade to make you change your mind, just help you understand mine better (now if you do change you mind that’s fine too). I find them all very enjoyable, but Aladdin to be the one Disney musical above all, that I can’t live without.

92. Speed

Speed (1994)
Directed by Jan de Bont

I stood with my parents in front of the Oaks Theatre near the Melbourne Square Mall. We had two choices, Speed or The Lion King. We chose Speed as a family (even though I was eleven, I still felt a little old for a cartoon), and we all had a fantastic film experience. Who would’ve thought that fifteen years later I would rank Speed just a bit above The Lion King in my “Films I Can’t Live Without” List? In hindsight, our family made the better decision.

Speed is a classic action film (even if it really is Die Hard On a Bus). From the superb opening elevator situation to the closing subway jump, this is a classic nail biter. I’ve seen a lot of films since and few are able to match the brake neck pace that Speed attains, while still retaining a few interesting characters. The 1990s contained a plethora of “I’ve got a hostage” films, but this is the crème of the crop.

Speed was a star-making film for Keanu “What’re you gonna do” Reeves and Sandra “Wilcat behind the wheel” Bullock. Both actors have great charisma and create (along with Jeff Daniels) interesting enough performances to carry a film without a true blue plot beyond its basic premise.

For such an engaging and suspenseful movie to come out of what amounts to a lot of driving around is a testament to the performances, editing and directing. For a fun, wholesome (outside of some vulgar language), and exciting time at the movies, you can’t get much better than Speed.

Other Essentials: Classic action score, “The airport, I’ve already seen the airport”, “Shoot the hostage”, and the ridiculous bus jump sequences that works for some strange reason

Friday, March 20, 2009

93. The Emperor's New Groove

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Directed by Mark Dindal

I first saw The Emperor’s New Groove in the fall of 2000 on a night when I was in a particularly bad mood. My friends and I drove nearly an hour to the Vero AMC, a nice theatre we would go to when we so desired. In a way that only a truly pleasant film experience can, The Emperor’s New Groove completely changed my spirits and had my friends and I laughing the whole car ride back. I’ve watched it several times since and its simple delights have not diminished.

Much like Kung Fu Panda, there is a sweet innocence to the story of Emperor’s New Groove that makes it such straightforward pleasure to watch. The decision to tone down the animation and go with a stylized look versus a realistic look adds to the “pull up a chair and hear a story” quality that I love. I think I am going to stop myself for a moment. It’s hard for me to encapsulate all the details that work so well for me in this film, so I think I am just going to stop myself here.

There is no overarching social commentary, deep insights, or deep artistic cry in this film,and while the technical aspects are exemplary (the voice over work Kitt, Goodman, and Spade are fantastic), it may be best if I just stick to the basics. I enjoy this film. Its simple and well told. When I am feeling down and need a pick me up, this one will always do it. What more needs to be said? This is a film I can’t live without.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

94. Y Tu Mama Tambien

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

After much deliberation and thought, I decided that this controversial Mexican road trip film had to make my list. It typically falls off and jumps on my lists every other year, as I get gun-shy about including it. As much as I try and move past this film, it still continues to bother me (in the good way), to engage me with its story, and confront me with its characters. That has emboldened me enough to include it on this list. I know that many of you are completely unfamiliar with this film and are wondering what on earth makes it so controversial, so let me explain.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (spanish for “And your mother too”) was the breakthrough critical hit film for Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The film tells the story of Julio and Tenoch’s summer after high school graduation and before college. They set out to woo Luisa, an older woman who is loosely related to Tenoch, and they eventually convince her to head out on a beach trip with them. The rest of the film follows their journey and their attempts to try and score with Luisa.

What makes the film a controversial choice is that it’s an extremely sexual film. The film contains several graphic sex scenes, as well as constant explicit dialogue. Throw in some casual drug use (which there is) and we have the makings of your average teenage sex comedy. If you know me at all, you should know that my least favorite genre is the teenage sex comedy. So what gives?

Although it retains the outline and characters of a sex comedy, Y Tu Mama Tambien is really a film about moral immaturity masquerading as sexual freedom. The film ultimately subverts and destroys all the typical pleasures of your normal sex comedy. Rather than making Julio and Tenoch the heroes in the story, the film takes every chance it can to make them into failures.

They make promises to their girlfriends to stay true, and promptly break them at the first chance. They make a code of ethics between each other, and end up breaking nearly every one of them (even sleeping with each other’s girlfriends). When they finally end up “scoring” with Luisa, they are not conquering victors; they are immature children who care nothing for her. Jealousy, rage, unforgiveness, and pettiness are all traits that our leads will eventually come face to face with.

The art direction and cinematography also work to convey the moral decay of our two leads. There is a particular sequence at a motel pool, where the decrepit and uncared for pool mirrors the decay of leads. There is also a narrator who breaks into the film every now and then and gives some human detail about the locations and areas our leads pass through. Most of the time it’s about someone who died in an accident on the spot they passed through, or some secret detail about the character itself. This voice-over completely revolutionizes the film, exposing the self-centeredness of our supposed heroes.

There is a secret that our narrator does not reveal and that we do not find out about until the end, and its reveal is devastating. The final sequence finds our two lead characters stopping for coffee as changed men; their immature debauchery clearly behind them and the obligations of the present pressing upon them. It’s a sobering sequence, and it stands in stark contrast to the gratuitous sexual triumphs of lesser films.

I love this film because it tries with every fiber of its being to comment upon the selfishness of our two teen leads. It’s a film that realistically portrays the perspective and attitudes of many young teenagers, and then systematically subverts the supposed sexual freedom that is portrayed. Did it have to be as explicit as it was? No, it could’ve done things differently, and its for that reason that its not a film I pop into the DVD player often, nor is it a film I recomend often. Still, the film is a powerful artistic statement that conveys truth, and its one that I couldn’t live without.

The clip below is the trailer for the film

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

95. Zodiac

Zodiac (2007)
Directed by David Fincher

With this new entry to my top 100 we take a turn from the simple innocence of believing in ourselves (Kung Fu Panda), to the grey and confused world of David Fincher’s Zodiac. The film roughly follows the lives of the men who attempt to track down and bring to justice the Zodiac killer of San Francisco. For a quick read on the real facts of the Zodiac case here is a link to the Wikipedia site.

Zodiac is a meticulous and methodical movie that spans several years and several main characters. It begins with the initial killings of the serial killer known as the Zodiac and then evolves into a systematic procedural on the attempts to catch him. Fincher absolutely nails the nuts and bolts of this film, as it is a real pleasure to watch this case unfold and reveal layer after layer of detail.

It’s a credit to Fincher that the film always remains engaging, suspenseful, and interesting. The killings themselves are suitably tough to watch as well as unnerving and the manhunt to follow is equally riveting. The technical aspects are as good here as they are in any other film shot for the 70s, especially Harry Savides’ cinematography that perfectly conveys the heavy moral darkness of the film.

While the film works perfectly well as a methodical crime story, we all know in real life that the Zodiac killer was never found. This of course poses some severe problems for anyone trying to make a film because there is no closure. Who was it? Fincher’s creative answer is to not make the goal of the film the capture of the killer, but to make it about the obsession that paralyzed the lives of the men who sought for the killer.

It’s this direction that truly impacted me in watching this film. By the end of the film, Zodiac so wonderfully conveys man’s search for justice and meaning in a world of moral confusion, that is was undeniably relatable. What happens to a man when the quest for justice is never completed? How does one find balance and meaning to a life’s quest that goes unfulfilled? Can a man ever find peace, when such things go unfulfilled?

It’s not an easy answer, but Zodiac attempts to answer this question (which I won’t spoil here), and it’s not only satisfactory, but it’s revelatory. It’s an answer that has grown on me and has taught me patience and peace with the particular obsessions of my life. For that, this is a film I can’t live without.

Other Essentials: All of the outstanding performances, props to any film featuring Brian Cox in a supporting role, the outstanding soundtrack

96. Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson

I think that Kung Fu Panda is one of the more overlooked animated films of all-time and I’m one of the few who thought it should’ve beaten Wall*E for the Animated Feature Oscar of 2008. Shakespeare this film isn’t; but it’s a solid, efficient, and perfect animated film that is an absolute delight to watch.

From the over-stylized opening sequence (that had me laughing from the get-go) to the artful credit sequence, Kung Fu Panda is a tightly wound and plotted work. I applaud the decision to go simple and innocent with the tone of the film. I particularly enjoyed the idyllic settings the animators painted for this universe; the simple landscapes and town folk (mostly made of ducks and bunnies) would feel at home in a children’s cartoon on Disney channel.

Great attention is also paid to the action sequences. It’s clear that the animators and writers have researched and been influenced by past Kung Fu film, because the fights pay homage to all the necessary trademarks of kung fu while remaining refreshingly contemporary as well as exciting. Three sequences are standout action set pieces; Tai Lueng’s prison breakout, Po’s Dumpling Training, and the final showdown between Tai Lueng, Shifu, and Po.

As much as I enjoy the action in this film, the biggest reason I wouldn’t want to live without this film is because of the characters. I’ve had the opportunity to watch this film several times now and I’ve grown fond of the ever-positive but physically challenged Po (voiced excellently by Jack Black), as well as the restless, conflicted, but basically good Shifu (also voiced excellently by Dustin Hoffman).

It’s in the interaction between these two characters that the film really finds its soul. These are two living breathing characters that have their own weaknesses and strengths, and for a simple and innocent family film, it’s refreshing to see such conflicted yet triumphant characters.

While the main message of the film (if we believe that we can be special then we will be special) is a good and worthy message, I really connect with the relationship between Po and Shifu. That they ultimately find redemption and success when they admit their faults and work together is a simple delight that few films have to offer. Honestly, when was the last time a film delivered an honest, innocent, and simply delightful payoff? You know this film works when it can successfully end with the its two central characters just relaxing together on the floor. For that, and all else that goes with it, Kung Fu Panda is a film I can’t live without.

Other Essentials: The moment when Po tries to take some broken concrete as a souvenir, the wushu finger hold, the amazing intro for the turtle Master Oogway

Here is a link to my original review of Kung Fu Panda from June 2008