#15: The Hunt (Jagten)
This emotional and profound drama from Denmark concerns Lucas (Mads Mikkelson), a schoolteacher struggling through divorce. Lucas is a caring educator, but his young student Klara soon ruins his life after lying about being molested by Lucas. Soon, his small town has turned against him, understandably believing the lie though we as the audience know better.
Mikkelson is excellent here, bucking against his usual type of the cunning killer or villain. He’s vulnerable, emotional, and takes us with him on a journey into being an outcast.
#14: Life of Pi
Maybe it’s the theology major in me, but this has remained a film that’s constantly on my mind, more than five years since I first experienced it. Rare is the movie that carries a big budget, an Oscar-winning director, and cutting/edge effects, while backing it all up with deep philosophical questions.
Pi Patel (an excellent Suraj Sharma) is stranded at sea after a storm sinks the ship carrying his family from India to Canada. The only other survivors are a number of zoo animals from the ship’s cargo. Soon, Pi is sharing his lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
The film is told from the perspective of a much older Pi, using his story of survival to frame the debate about God’s existence. His conclusion: there are two ways of seeing the world, and we each choose the narrative we find most compelling.
“Inception” is one of those movies that becomes a parody of itself. Like “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and even “The Dark Knight” before it, “Inception” had a hold on popular culture in a way few films can achieve. The droning “wahs” of Hans Zimmer’s score, the trademark intercutting of three storylines by director Christopher Nolan, the proliferation of “it was all a dream” theories—they can all be found here.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a widower with a suppressed past, who leads a team of highly-trained specialist in the field of extraction—essentially a form of infiltrating the mind of a subject while he or she sleeps to extract important information for high-priced clientele. This process is achieved by drugging the subject before the whole extraction crew shares the dream space of one person, rendering them capable of manipulating the subject’s dream to their benefit.
After a botched extraction on shady CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe), Cobb’s team is tasked with making amends by pulling one last job working on Saito’s behalf. The catch: not to extract an idea, but to plant one inside the mind of a rival businessman, thus inspiring him to get out of the game and leave the spoils for Saito. Of course, this process, called “inception,” is complicated by a number of obstacles, not the least of which is the manifestation of Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who crops up in Cobb’s dream world to torment him and jeopardizes the mission’s success.
Nolan is at his absolute peak as a storyteller here, creating characters who feel both fully-formed and yet guarded, a compelling story arc, and a universe with clear rules. Part of the difficulty of Cobb’s mission is having to drill so deep into his subject’s subconscious that the team must implant the idea in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream. By the film’s climax, the audience is watching three separate dreamscapes, each with their own challenges and complications, edited together into a dizzying spell of narrative craft.
#12: Finding Nemo
I was as surprised as anyone to see this film so high in my list, which began with a process where I assigned films a score out of 100. Thinking maybe I’d rated “Finding Nemo” too high, I decided to hold it up head-to-head against others in the top 25, and when I asked myself, “Which one would you rather watch on any given day,” I found that Pixar’s 2003 effort was just as good as the numbers indicated.
Pixar was in the middle of its incredible stretch of great films, beginning with “Toy Story 2” and extending through “Ratatouille,” but something about the simplicity of this story resonates with both critics and audiences. The plot, in a nutshell: a widower clownfish named Marlin (voiced expertly by Albert Brooks) teams up with Dory, a blue tang with memory issues, to find Nemo, Marlin’s only son and the victim of an abduction.
By keeping the story simple, writer/director Andrew Stanton is able to introduce a constant stream of new characters who serve the plot and provide neat little chapters on Marlin and Dory’s journey. What makes the whole thing work, though, is the pervading sense that our main characters need each other. Marlin sees Nemo as the last link to his wife, Nemo possesses a deformed fin symbolic of the fear instilled in him by his overprotective father, and Dory is an outcast without a future or a past. As we meet new characters throughout the film, we begin to get a sense of what constitutes a family, and we’re rooting not just for Nemo’s rescue, but for these three to find the fulfillment of community.
#11: Cinderella Man
“Cinderella Man,” the film, is as much an underdog as its subject, boxing champion James J. Braddock. Despite positive reviews, this 2005 Ron Howard effort saw its awards hopes derailed by star Russell Crowe’s assault controversy, nabbing Oscar nominations only for makeup, editing, and Paul Giamatti’s brilliant supporting turn.
Howard’s direction shows the relentlessness of Great Depression-era hardship, following Braddock (Crowe) from affluent champion to disgraced and destitute. To help keep the lights on in the shack his family has been forced into, Braddock works the docks and accepts government aid, while trying to reestablish himself as a fighter. The only manager willing to give him a shot is Joe Gould (Giamatti), who writes Braddock in as a last-minute punching bag against the world’s second-ranked fighter. Shockingly, Braddock wins, and keeps winning, garnering public support in the process. Eventually, he must match up against hulking champion Max Baer, whose punishing blows have killed fighters in the ring.
The major successes here are twofold. First, Howard takes his time in developing the film, ensuring that even when it falls into the familiar beats of a feel-good sports flick, the audience is invested. By showing in an unflinching light the depths of the Depression and its effects on Braddock, his family, and the nation, viewers understand what Braddock is fighting for—and what he is up against. Second, the performances are uniformly excellent across the board. The script is about as strong as its predictable narrative allows it to be, which is to say there’s potential for hokey-ness throughout. Without the commitment of Crowe, Giamatti, and an underappreciated Renee Zellweger, the movie just wouldn’t work. Fortunately for us, it does, and it is arguably the best sports film of the past two decades.