You know, there comes a time when we have to search far beyond the limits of our conscious mind and determine who we are. Our identity as writers and filmmakers, in the hopes of discovering our creative selves. Where we fit in the cinematic landscape.
And I’m sorry, but you have to stop saying The Shawshank Redemption is your favorite movie. All of you.
According to studies, 35% of “frequent to highly frequent” movie-goers side with The Shawshank Redemption as their default motion picture darling. Over 20% pick The Godfather or a Woody Allen movie, while the remainder select films in AFI’s best movie list or smaller but highly popular cult favorites.
Sure. These are all excellent movies.
Without a doubt, there are actual Shawshank fans out there.
And yes, the aforementioned statistics may be nothing more than my educated guess based on IMDB’s rankings and have no scientific basis whatsoever (like I have time to do research on “what’s your favorite movie” responses, although I did come across this Vanity Fair article, which explains a lot).
The point is, many of you are boldfaced liars when asked this question. It’s okay. We all are. Because we want to sound professional and qualified and worldly and other synonyms for those three things.
I tell people my favorite film is American Beauty, since the underlying commentary on society juxtaposed against late 20th century suburbia creates a blah blah blah Kevin Spacey is brilliant and you gotta see House of Cards. . . is how the conversation usually ends.
It’s a sad state of affairs. But while I would rank American Beauty high, is it my go-to movie on a Thursday night? I come across that and City Slickers II on TV, guess which one I’m sacrificing outdoor time for. I don’t care what the competition is, Jon Lovitz wins always. At the end of the day, great movies live only in the eye of the viewer.
The biggest rule to follow if you’re a screenwriter or filmmaker: be honest with yourself. Be honest with your style, your tastes, your voice. Everything. Honesty often-times starts with admitting your artistic preferences, no matter how ludicrous they come across. Professionalism be damned.
I therefore encourage you to publicly announce your personal top films and shamelessly declare them as outstanding. It’d be like your own personal Shawshank Redemption. Or something. I don’t really get the story. I mean, wasn’t Andy Dufresne going to kill his wife anyway?
So here are my top 10, based on the quality of writing, acting, and universal movieness. It’s a personal list, therefore these selections are
extremely sort of subjective. . . .
*I fully realize there are a lot of films from the 1980s here. But it was a great decade for movies. Especially 1989. Seriously, look it up.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Fans of post-apocalyptic landscapes, rejoice. It doesn’t get more unearthly than this (insert “but it was Earth!” joke).
Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison, followed by James Franciscus on a mission to recover the original astronaut team, traverse the underground ruins of New York City until coming across the last surviving humans on the planet, these bald, disease-ridden people. The victims of atomic fallout.
And they have a bomb, and–spoiler alert–blow it up in the end when the apes find their location. One of the most depressing endings to a sequel in history. But this makes the list for four reasons: a unique imagination of the future, the directing, the boldness of the writing (arguably better than the first installment), and every scene with Linda Harrison.
Return to Oz (1985)
I’m consistently shocked by how many people age 25-40 have never seen this sequel to The Wizard of Oz. But then I write “sequel to The Wizard of Oz,” and it’s pretty clear. A little hesitant to dive into Sequels that Shouldn’t Exist territory? More sympathetic I cannot be.
But this is different. It should exist, and it does exist.
In the vein of The Dark Crystal, or The Neverending Story, Return to Oz has a certain hyper-real fantasy charm only the 80s could supply. There are no Judy Garland solos, cartoonish painted backdrops, or delightfully macabre flying monkeys. You’ll notice about 15 or 20 minutes in, when Dorothy is taken to a turn-of-the-century doctor for experimental electroshock therapy before escaping with another girl, only to awaken in a much-changed, remarkably surreal Oz destroyed by the Nome King.
And there are “wheelers.” And an evil queen who collects heads. And a flying moose sofa. And a desert that turns living things to sand. And a talking rooster!
And it’s all very cool. Go Netflix it. Or you can borrow my VHS copy.
A bunch of old actors–and Steve Guttenberg–in a studio sci-fi/fantasy drama set in a Florida retirement community.
Best of luck pitching that in 2015.
Ironically, it’s a fantastic commercial premise. Or it was at the time. At its core, a modern day fountain of youth story. Simple and universal. We might never see another film like it: who’s writing a hazy genre taking shape as an alien movie with relevant cross-generational commentaries on death, aging, and, stating the obvious, the meaning of life itself? Not exactly in line with current audience expectations.
Yet I still tell writers, “Write the next Cocoon, and you’ll do fine.” To which they reply, “What’s Cocoon?” But what I’m really saying is “Write something thematically relevant with wonderful characters wrapped in a unique concept that challenges the mainstream.”
Then get Ron Howard to direct it. Aside from one of the best scripts you’ll ever read, Cocoon marks Howard’s prodigious artistry as a director on display for the first time. Unless you count Splash. I’m not counting Splash. My condolences to fans of Splash.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
I first saw this largely forgotten Kubrick-helmed drama on cable a year or so after its release, figuring I’d watch the first five minutes and switch to something else, as it received such mediocre reviews.
Like Tommy Lee Jones at the end of No Country for Old Men: “And then I woke up. . . .”
While it’s understandable why critics panned the movie–the plot doesn’t gel, and this was around the time it become “cool” to hate on Tom Cruise–it’s such an immersive, vivid experience, like every other Kubrick film, we can gloss over the imperfections.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the directing is an underrated, unacknowledged masterpiece. While perhaps not Kubrick’s magnum opus, Eyes Wide Shut serves as a suitable bookend to a remarkable career. And Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise had chemistry. So that’s something.
The Wizard (1989)
My God, this movie.
The casting, the plot, the soundtrack. The works. Possibly the best video game-related film of all time, and possibly the first video game film of all time, but who’s keeping track?
The Wizard was huge deal when it came out in theaters. Now you won’t find it airing anywhere, cable or network. A valid assumption: the content is far too dated to draw an audience. No one knows what a power glove is, so it gets the ax. Fair enough.
A trio comprised of Luke Edwards, Fred Savage and hitchhiking ginger Jenny Lewis travel to California on the advice of Savage to put the gamerly-gifted Edwards in a Nintendo competition–where they get to play the new Super Mario Bros. 3!–but all the kid wants to do is resolve some feelings about his dead sister. In a nutshell.
The acting and writing come together, minus a few corny scenes, but it’s excusable in the family drama territory. After renting it from The Warehouse so many times, I would get stuck in the pre-teen fantasy of kissing Jenny Lewis on top of a trailer in the desert like Savage’s character. . . . Off-topic, but still worth mentioning.
Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird (1985)
Also referred to as “Street FTB,” if you’re in the know.
The concept of Follow that Bird is utterly ridiculous. And terrifying. A mean old finch, appropriately named Ms. Finch, says Big Bird should be living with a bird family, so she relocates him, without any resistance, to live with The Dodos. However, Big Bird deems them insane and runs away, it makes huge news, he’s declared missing, and the good people of Sesame Street try to track him down before Ms. Finch.
Look past the absurdity, and Street FTB is awash in classic one-liners and banter most kids aren’t going to get. True to Muppet tradition (they’re all technically from the Muppet genus), it’s an adult comedy packaged as a kid’s movie.
Romancing the Stone (1984)
Once in a while I’ll meet someone named Joan, and I’ll say “Joan Wile-dare? The Joan Wile-dare?” in a Colombian accent. Their confused, quasi-annoyed look makes me nostalgic for a simpler time when studios made adventure/rom-coms.
Joan Wilder, played by the inimitable Kathleen Turner, has a meet-cute-plus-gunplay encounter with Jack T. Colton. What’s the “T” stand for? We never find out. Because the Doobie Brothers broke up. Long story. So he helps her get to Cartagena, finds out about the treasure map, they get that phat emerald, dodge the bad guys, and the boat never comes back for Danny DeVito.
Romancing the Stone is the epitome of a flawless blend of genres. A romantic comedy that’s entirely believable and an adventure with serious high stakes and conflict. Credit fantastic character development on the part of screenwriter Diane Thomas, who died in a car accident shortly after the movie’s release with no one to carry the torch for films like this.
Yeah, yeah. “There have been plenty other A-level rom-com hybrids.” Not really. Not with a protagonist like Joan Wilder, the novelist, who has a fan base in Colombia pre-social media. That’s boss.
Little Children (2006)
The poster, which is also spectacular, hangs neatly framed above the desk in my office. So we have kind of a daily intimate connection, me and this movie.
As many terribly fascinating, poignantly written dramatic films occupied the early 2000s–we can make a long list of those alone–Little Children stands out as an all-star. While the unprecedented casting and the impressive direction by Todd Field make the film what it is, due credit must be given to the screenplay, adapted from the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name. Adaptations can be tricky, even for basic dramas. Nay, especially for basic dramas. If you read the book, you’ll notice much was retained in the final version, including the superbly delineated characters, but the film offers a plot structure (again, credit ought to go to Field) that draws us in to a haunting story of suburbia gone bad. Or gone good, depending on your perspective.
After a handful of Golden Globe and Oscar noms, everyone seemed to move on to bigger and better and darker dramedies. As expected. But history will look kindly upon this gem of an indie.
Point Break (1991)
I hate to understate things, but it’s one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema and theatre, too. At least post-Renaissance.
Having seen Point Break approximately 763 times in the 90s alone, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the paradigm for all action movies of its kind. Proof that you don’t need a huge budget, a bunch of CGI, explosions, or blatant nudity (except for one flash of the kick-ass shower girl) to sustain a crime movie. A couple on-the-nose pieces of dialogue, but whatever. It shows us a world where: Keanu Reeves plays, um, Keanu Reeves, I believe; a normal Gary Busey; a leading lady challenging the female stereotypes from the era; and Patrick Swayze with long hair. Which was a big deal back then.
I’m only ranking Point Break runner-up because there can be no ties when it comes to underrated movies. And the top slot is a no-brainer–
Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)
I don’t know what to tell you. It’s the perfect comedy. Plot, structure, character, dialogue. . . . Flawless.
Naturally, I can’t argue the fact it’s 10x more asinine than anything else on this list, but think about it for a second–it’s not that illogical. Their boss sets them up to get killed, he gets murdered in the process, and they pretend he’s dead to get off the the island alive. I challenge any of you to come up with a better plan in that situation, in an era where wackiness was a proven method of getting out of jams. Isn’t that how the Cold War ended?
Plus, it’s not like we’re without a voice of reason. Jonathan Silverman makes one hell of a protest to Andrew McCarthy. But then Catherine Stewart shows up to Bernie’s beach house during the party, and she’s totally 80s rad, so he changes his mind briefly, then comes to his wits the next day, and frankly, I’d hate to spoil it if you haven’t seen it.
Best consumed with a strawberry daiquiri while wearing short shorts or one of those neon, high-waisted one-piece bikinis that makes your lower body look awkward.
For 12 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman, Divergent) and Tripper Clancy (The Ambassadors, Stranded). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation, he’s writing literary fiction and developing feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards.