UPDATE: As of April 2014, I’ve plugged Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier into the line up!
Thor: The Dark World comes out this week; who’s excited?! In preparation, I’ve rewatched the Avengers origin story movies these past couple of months. So for those of you who are wondering which to watch and which to skip, here’s my countdown!
9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Directed by Louis Leterrier
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 min.
As much as I like Edward Norton, this Hulk movie easily comes in last place for the recent origin stories. The film has very little momentum. Basically, Bruce Banner runs away from some people. He does this in various cities. At some point an incredibly underdeveloped supervillain is introduced. In the end the Hulk fights him because he is the only one who can, but hero and villain really had no personal grudge. In fact, we aren’t sure what motivated the villain to experiment with the gamma radiation in the first place, except for the cliché and shallow reasoning that he wanted to be stronger. There were a few good lines, but overall this movie is totally skippable. There is no information that you gain in this film that you need in any of the others—even The Avengers.
8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Directed by Alan Taylor
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 min.
This film is much, much better than the 2008 Hulk. But falls short of its predecessor, the first Thor. The good in this film is (unsurprisingly) Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. The villain of Marvel’s Avengers and Thor gets a chance to bare his soul a bit in this one and we see some development in his relationship with his brother (although it is often hard to distinguish sincere Loki from manipulative Loki…). But the Thor-Jane relationship is still boring (see below) and the film’s villain is also one-dimensional. Combine that with large chunks of awkward dialogue and explication, and even the amazing cameo of Chris O’Dowd (Roy from the IT Crowd) is not enough to place this one higher on the list.
7. Thor (2011)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 114 min.
This film is a bit better than its sequel, and essential to watch before The Avengers or Thor: The Dark World . The immature, prideful, moody hero we see at the beginning of this film is straight out of the comic book, and his transformation is believable. Other highlights of the film include an awesome villain (Tom Hiddleston’s Loki who will return in Avengers and Thor 2) and some great comic moments. What stops Thor from ranking up with everything ahead of on the list for me is the ridiculously underdeveloped romance. Jane the scientist somehow falls deeply—life-sacrificingly—in love with Thor the minute she meets him. And while Thor undergoes quite a transformation over the course of the film, their relationship really doesn’t seem to evolve at all. And since they haven’t known each other that long and their attachment seems purely physical (contrast with Captain America), the sacrifices that are made in the end do not seem as dramatic or impactful. An entertaining movie and essential to the plot development of the subsequent films, but low on this list.
6. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Directed by Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 124 min.
Pretty universally agreed to be the least of the Iron Mans, in this adventure Tony Stark must atone for the sins of his father—not nearly as compelling as when he faces his own past idiocy in 1 & 3. We also lack the underdog effect that made Iron Man 1 (and arguably also 3) so fantastic. Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow will be an interesting character in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but in this film she has zero character depth and not even that much action. Still, a fun action movie and good to watch before the superior Iron Man 3.
Here’s where it starts getting tough to rank. . .
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Directed by Shane Black
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 130 min.
There are many people who would put The Avengers in 4th place and others who would rank Iron Man 3 higher than Iron Man 1. I can see making both of these choices, but here’s why I’ve got Iron Man 3 down at number 4. The premise of this film is great. Coming off of the Avengers mission, Stark has PTSD from his nearly fatal trip into the vortex. Meanwhile, although he has grown so much as a person during his stint as a superhero, mistakes he made earlier in his life and career still have dire consequences. Unlike in Iron Man 2, Stark becomes an underdog again—forced to go back to the root of his superhero “power”: his skill as a mechanic. Ben Kingsley is an absolutely fantastic villainous figure. And like all of the Iron Mans, the film has a great balance of humor and action. So what knocks it down to number 4? Deus ex machina at the end. There is a fine line between awesome sci-fi concept and over-the-top ridiculousness. But it is still a must-see!
4. Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 min.
After much deliberation, I’m going to put Iron Man below The Avengers, but I don’t know that I can really make the argument that The Avengers is a better film. I just like all the inside jokes…
Iron Man is your classic underdog-becomes-superhero set up. Stark’s arrogance gets him into a situation where his own weapons are being used against him—and with all of his body guards taken away, he must draw on his skills as an inventor to save himself. This film is action-packed and hilarious, and the lack of a prominent romance plot in this particular Iron Man leaves all of the focus on Stark’s transformation from irresponsible jerk-face to superhero.
3. Marvel’s Avengers (2012)
Directed by Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 145 min.
It is probably unfair to put The Avengers quite this high on the list, because it is definitely less self-contained than Iron Man. You can watch Iron Man with no prior comic book knowledge and the film will give you everything you need. For The Avengers, in order to get all the jokes and truly appreciate what is going on, you must not only have seen Thor and Iron Man, but you also need to know your comic book characters. The Black Widow/Hawkeye dynamic is great, but if you don’t know their backstory, you aren’t going to get enough of it in the film to know what’s going on. That said, if you do know some of the backstory of these characters, this movie is fantastic. Loki is even more compelling and interesting on Earth than he was in Asgard. And the way the heroes clash with one another while trying to unite into a team—in a script written by Joss Whedon—is both hilarious and suspenseful. Also, giant, alien-spewing space whales. Just saying.
2. Captain America (2011)
Directed by Joe Johnston
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 min.
Although it doesn’t have the humor that comes from combining all of the heroes in The Avengers, Captain America’s structure and character-driven plot are so cohesive and self-sufficient that I have to put it on top. We start with a scrawny kid who just wants to go fight Nazis. His moral integrity and work ethic earn him a spot as an experimental super soldier, but still no one takes him seriously. So he has to prove his worth by facing impossible odds and saving a bunch of lives—and then later fighting a Nazi supervillain. The plot is a classic, but it was perfectly executed, keeping us invested in the character development while also maintaining momentum in the action of the plot. And—a bit shocking in a superhero action movie—Captain America has a believable romance where the hero and leading lady actually know one another over a period of time and fall in love with each other not as superhero and damsel in distress, but as teammates. And because of this, the sacrifice Captain Rogers must make in the end is genuinely heart-breaking—and yet the only believable choice his character would ever make. Captain America has fewer of the hilarious superhero inside jokes that make me love The Avengers and less of the character charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, but this movie is just solid on all levels. And unlike The Avengers, it can stand on its own without prior knowledge or even the need for a sequel (although they clearly intend one). It ends by closing the door on Captain America’s past life and love.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 136 min
I didn’t think the new Captain America could possibly outdo its sequel. But I was wrong. The story writing is again flawless–again a typical trope, this time hero-turned-fugitive, but executed well. The balance between humor and action are great, and the major characters develop throughout the story. There is some prior knowledge required. You must have seen Captain America and The Avengers. But it is a sequel, so that is to be expected. It does not require any knowledge that is unavailable in those previous films (the way that The Avengers requires some comic book knowledge). But what gives this sequel the edge over its predecessor is a more nuanced and compelling villain/challenge for the hero. Now in the modern day, we have a modern version of the former Nazi villian’s vision. The evil is less black-and-white, and the best solutions to problems are unclear and a source of dissent among the heroes.
So while The Avengers is probably still my personal favorite, the Captain Americas continue to dominate as the most cohesive, well-structured, character-driven films in the franchise.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (released before MPAA ratings)
Running Time: 136 min.
When two thugs kidnap Roger Thornhill from a business lunch at a fancy hotel, he isn’t sure whether he should be more afraid or outraged. His captors seem to have mistaken him for someone called “George Kaplan,” and they won’t believe him when he tells them they’ve got the wrong man. When he refuses to cooperate—for the simple reason that he has no idea what they’re talking about—they try to kill him by staging a drunk driving accident. When he survives and returns with the police to the mansion where he was being held, his captors have carefully covered their tracks, making him seem like a paranoid drunk. But the last straw comes when the kidnappers frame him for the murder of a United Nations diplomat. Now Roger is on the run—from the kidnappers and from the police—and the only hope he has of clearing his name is to find the real George Kaplan.
You know a film was made by “the Master of Suspense” when you’ve seen it ten times and it still makes you jump. As is Hitchcock’s strength, the suspense comes as much from action as from lack of action, mystery, and uncertainty. Humor and sexual tension is smoothly blended into story, and unlike many thrillers today, Hitchcock does not ignore the visual artistry of his filmmaking when focusing on the action of the plot. His intentional, deliberate use of color and carefully composed shots make his film attractive as well as exciting. Yes, you must be tolerant of 1950s special effects and ridiculous (and sexist) flirty banter, but Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a must-see for thriller lovers. Definitely a favorite of mine. I highly recommend it!
When the Civil War tears through Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized vision of the Old South, a noble civilization is burned to ash and swept away by the Yankee army. The weak whither and fade in the dust of their lost world, but the strong rise from the ashes and reclaim the land that was their own.
Before the war, Scarlett O’Hara is the belle of the county, desperately in love with Ashley who—despite his love for Scarlett—has chosen to marry the more practical Melanie. Scarlett marries his cousin to spite him, but the war leaves her a widowed mother, impoverished, and compelled by her love of Ashley to help support his wife and child. Realizing that money is the only thing that matters, Scarlett is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to build her fortune again. The only person that she can’t seem to dominate is the infamous blockade runner, Rhett Butler, whose ego, sarcasm, and impropriety make him both attractive and infuriating.
Although I grew up loving the film, every time I eyed the 1,000 page tome on which it was based, I balked. I don’t usually enjoy long books; I often spend half the time slogging through painfully verbose descriptions, wondering when the action will. Additionally, I don’t usually enjoy romance novels, and romance certainly features prominently in Gone With the Wind. But when a fourteen year old boy told me that Gone With the Wind was one of the best books he had ever read, I was so intrigued that I picked it up. And from that moment, I could not put it down.
As much as it is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, Gone With the Wind is a romance between Margaret Mitchell and the Old South. She wrote the book in the 1920s and 1930s based on stories told to her by her grandparents’ generation, and her romanticized fiction should not be mistaken for historical fact. Deeply entrenched, lingering racism and classism is present not only in the thoughts of the characters but also in Mitchell’s omniscient narration. But it is easy to see how the audience that read Mitchell’s book when it was released in 1936—people who had lost so many loved ones and sacrificed so much in a Great War of their own and were then living through a horrible period of economic uncertainty—found the story of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling.
And the well-written, heartrending story still captures the imagination today. The world Mitchell creates and destroys is so beautiful yet flawed, and her account of the ups and downs of the war so agonizing, that even knowing how it would end, I couldn’t put the book down. But it is the characters that truly drive the story forward. Scarlett’s self-interested passion and determination is a foil to Melanie’s quiet, selfless, and commanding strength. Far more than in the movie, Captain Butler’s deep goodness shines through the mask of his weaknesses and vices. It is difficult not to both hate and pity Scarlett for failing to see through his studied nonchalance to the love he conceals out of fear that she will manipulate him, as she does all other men.
If you love the movie, you must read the book. The movie is a good adaptation, but even 4 hours of film cannot capture the depth and nuance of this 959 page novel. Additionally, Hollywood’s added “I love yous” and eliminated references to sex and pregnancy cause subtle yet important changes to the Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley love triangle. Be prepared for a glimpse into the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South), but also for a perhaps not-entirely-inaccurate view of the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the Yankees. And be prepared to watch in agony the slow demise of a relationship—and a civilization—due to foolishness, pride, and miscommunication.
Thank you for the recommendation, Max! I will second your vote: this is definitely one of the best books I have ever read.
Creators: John Fawcett and Graeme Manson
After ten months away living with her abusive, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, Sarah Manning takes a late subway train back to Toronto, hoping to see her young daughter, Kira. Unfortunately, Kira’s current guardian (Sarah’s own foster mother) makes it clear on the phone that Sarah can’t see her daughter until she has cleaned up her act. As she is about to leave the subway, Sarah sees a woman identical to herself commit suicide by jumping in front of the train. In the commotion that follows, Sarah—enterprising young grifter that she is—steals the dead woman’s purse. She realizes that she looks so much like the dead woman (who is revealed by her driver’s license to be Beth Childs) that she may be able to make even more money by stealing her identity. But Sarah’s plan to drain Beth’s bank accounts and then escape with Kira goes awry when she discovers that Beth was actually a cop. Even worse, Beth (now Sarah) is on trial for having accidentally killed a civilian. As Sarah tries to think on her feet and keep herself out of prison, she also discovers that Beth may have been caught up in something even more sinister and complicated than she first realized.
This show is awesome! It is a funny, suspenseful Sci-Fi thriller (though you wouldn’t know it from my description above; the Sci-Fi enters a couple episodes in) and is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat as you try to untangle the mystery. If you don’t like shows that make you think, this is not the show for you. But if you like humorous, fast-paced, suspenseful science fiction, you will love this show. It is incredibly well-written, and Tatiana Maslany is a phenomenal actress. She can play more than one role and have you fully convinced that she is two different people. She even has chemistry with herself. I cannot recommend it highly enough to Sci-Fi and mystery/thriller fans. It is quickly becoming a favorite of mine!
Orphan Black will probably appeal to viewers who like suspenseful yet humorous Sci-Fi such as “Warehouse 13,” “Doctor Who,” and “Firefly.” It may also appeal to fans of suspenseful shows like “Alias” and “24.”
Director: Steve Gordon
MPAA Rating: PG (rated before PG-13 rating existed; today, may be PG-13)
Running Time: 97 min.
Arthur Bach has always relied on his family’s fortune to make him happy. He spends most of his money on alcohol and women and is famous for being a drunken playboy. When his father and grandmother threaten to cut him off unless he marries heiress Susan Johnson, Arthur reluctantly agrees—for although he does not love Susan and although Susan’s ex-convict self-made-millionaire father threatens to kill him if he does not clean up his act, quit drinking, and go to work, Arthur cannot imagine a life without his family’s money. But that is all before he meets Linda, a neck-tie stealing, penniless, waitress from Queens with whom Arthur immediately falls in love. Encouraged by his elderly butler and father-figure, Hobson, Arthur must decide whether his love for Linda is worth forfeiting the comfortable lifestyle he has known all of his life.
This relatively light, hilarious comedy is one of my favorites. True to Dudley Moore’s style, the comedy is a mixture of witty lines and slapstick humor. My favorite character is John Gielgud’s Hobson, who delivers all of his hilariously sarcastic lines with a perfect deadpan. The relationship between Arthur and Hobson is quite touching and grounds the otherwise silly, light comedy. I highly recommend this film to viewers who like British comedies (although the film is American) and/or both witty wordplay and slapstick humor!
If you like Arthur, you might like the 1967 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook comedy Bedazzled.
Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time 42 min.
In his super villain identity as Dr. Horrible, Billy dreams of joining the Evil League of Evil and disrupting the “status quo” of a society that is clearly complacent in its corruption and brokenness. But he also dreams of asking out the gorgeous girl from the laundromat, Penny. Unfortunately, when a chance to talk to Penny finally presents itself, Dr. Horrible is in the midst of a major heist–one that could make or break his application to the League. Even more unfortunately, Dr. Horrible’s nemesis Captain Hammer gets in the way on both fronts, foiling the heist and rescuing Penny who then agrees to date him. Now in order to get into the ELE, make Penny fall in love with him, and of course fix the world, Dr. Horrible will need to do something drastic.
Thank you, 2008 Screen Writers Strike, for prompting the creation of this brilliant three episode web-series, now available through iTunes and on DVD. If you love Joss Whedon/Firefly/Serenity/Buffy/any of the above, you will love Dr. Horrible (let’s face it–you’ll already have seen Dr. Horrible. . . .). But if you like funny, quirky sci-fi and/or musicals (and don’t mind low budget!), give Dr. Horrible a try. It’s one of my favorites!
Original Title: In the Bleak Midwinter
Director: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99 min
Joe feels like his life and his acting career have both gotten away from him, and as Christmas draws near, he feels compelled to do something about it. His plan to find employment and the meaning of life is simple: gather a group of passionate actors together to put on a stage production of Hamlet in a condemned church building. If all goes well, they may save the old church and get noticed by some casting directors. Unfortunately, the group of actors that Joe rounds up are at best quirky, and quite possible mad. Together they embark on the journey of a collaborative Shakespeare production, and it may be a miracle if they all get out of it alive.
As someone who has done a lot of theatre, I find this film both hilarious and touching. The characters are all entertaining stereotypes who by the end of the film have become quite human and real. Through the process of producing the show and building relationships with one another, the characters draw meaning out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet beautifully. It is not strictly-speaking an adaptation of Hamlet, but themes and lines from Shakespeare’s play are interwoven with the story of the actors in an accessible and thought-provoking way. The film is also laced with an abundance of witty lines and slapstick humor. Not one of Branagh’s best known, but one of my favorites!
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 99 min.
Tully Alford has been the Addams family lawyer for years. He knows how odd the family is, often sees the children Wednesday and Pugsley attempting to dismember each other while their parents watch affectionately, and jumps every time the disembodied hand “Thing” crawls at him across the floor. But he also knows of Gomez and Morticia’s immense wealth, and as his creditor Mrs. Craven starts harassing him for payments, he concocts a plan to steal the Addams family fortune. Mrs. Craven’s son, Gordon, will pose as Gomez’s long lost brother, Fester, get close to the family, and rob the vault. The plan seems perfect, but the Addams family’s unusual customs make operations more difficult than they had anticipated and may even threaten the conspirators’ sanity.
I grew up watching and loving the TV series, and I find this film hilarious. The comedy is based in silliness and slapstick, and the overall eccentricity of the characters and bizarre, quirky tone of the film make it a lot of fun. Also Wednesday Addams has some of the best lines in movie history. One of my favorites!
Director: Charles Barton
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (released before MPAA Ratings)
Running Time: 83 min
When Chick and Wilbur are preparing to deliver two large crates to McDougall’s House of Horrors, they receive a mysterious phone call from a Mr. Talbot warning them of impending danger. Chick dismisses the phone call as superstitious nonsense and orders Wilbur to help him with the crates. In the middle of their delivery, however, Wilbur discovers that the crates contain the real bodies of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster and that they are both alive. Before Mr. McDougall arrives to inspect his merchandise, the monsters have escaped and Chick and Wilbur are arrested. Joan Raymond, who works for McDougall’s insurance company, arranges for their release so that she can tail them–hoping they will lead her to what she believes to be the stolen wax figures of Frankenstein and Dracula. Meanwhile, Talbot shows up and announces that he believes Wilbur that the monsters are alive. He also claims to be a werewolf, which neither Chick nor Wilbur fully believes. And as if matters weren’t complicated enough, Wilbur’s girlfriend, Sandra, seems to be somehow involved with Count Dracula. Everything will come together when Chick, Wilbur, Sandra, Talbot, Miss Raymond, and McDougall attend a costume party near Dracula’s mansion.
Abbott and Costello are a classic comedy duo, perhaps best known for their “Who’s On First?” routine. Meet Frankenstein is my favorite of their films, as it combines all of their wonderful slapstick, wordplay, and silliness with a dose of creepy suspense. Also, Bela Lugosi as Dracula! If you like silly comedies and classic films, you should definitely check this one out.
Director: Tom Hooper
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 118 min
The second son of Edward V, Prince Albert never thought he would ascend the throne. He was a career military man, and his terrible stutter and fear of speaking in public made him loathe the occasions on which he was called upon to act as a statesman. But through the gentle prodding of his wife, Elizabeth, Bertie struck up a professional relationship and later friendship with Lionel Logue, an unconventional speech therapist. Where other speech therapists had failed, Lionel succeeded in giving the prince tricks and techniques for overcoming his stutter and–most importantly–in giving him confidence in his own ability to speak. As the political climate in Britain grows tense due to George V’s death, Edward VIII’s relationship with a divorced American, and Hitler’s mounting aggression, and with the new prominence of the radio as a means of communication, Bertie’s realizes that his voice will be critical in uniting the nation.
This film took numerous Academy Awards in 2011 including Best Picture. It is the best film I have seen in a long time. The cast includes some of my favorite actors (including Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Colin Firth) all of whom I have seen in many, many films. Yet when I watched The King’s Speech, I forgot who they were. I forgot I was watching actors; I became so absorbed in the world of the film, and there were no actor mannerisms or vocal cues or anything else to jerk me out of that illusion. I loved the color, the lighting, the cinematography, the soundtrack, and the screenplay. I know it probably needs no recommendation since it won so many awards, but I don’t always enjoy award winners as much as I enjoyed this film. If you prefer action-packed adventure stories, this film may not be for you. But if you enjoy films with an emphasis on character and relationships, I highly recommend it.