Religiosity and Conflict

Of Gods and Men – 2010 – dir. Xavier Beauvois

★★★★/★★★★

The world context of war has always had a religious aspect to it. Sometimes the war is caused by two religions conflicting (although that’s never the whole story) and other times it’s simply a question: what will the religious do in times of war. Do they take a side, do they fight, do they turn away the opposing forces? Of Gods and Men attempts to examine these questions although the answer is at best ambiguous. Actually it’s not. Are you willing to die for your generosity? Your answer to that question will be what you take away from this film. But neither answer is easy by any means.

The Atlas Monastery in Algeria is the setting of this film, and the monks are from which we see our conflict. At the onset of the civil war in Algeria, the Christians of the monastery and the Muslimah of the same community are torn in their actions. Neither supports the Islamic Extremist Insurgency nor their brutal actions, but when the insurgents roll through the community with an injured comrade they decide to treat the injured although the monks themselves are divided on this seeming show of support. At one point they meet with the executive of their area who also questions their support. Eventually they are kidnapped and killed by the insurgents.

The performances are all good although it can’t be said there are any standouts among the cast. The true star of this film is in the audiences minds. “What would I do in the same situation?” Would I, someone with medical training although not a doctor, treat someone who has very potentially killed friends of mine and has threatened to kill others? Would I stay in my monastery despite knowing that I was in grave danger? We are asked these questions and given no answers because of the deaths at the end of the film. This is an exercise in philosophy. 

Pixar: A Complete Ranking Part 2

Here is part one.

#7 – Up – 2009

The first three minutes of this movie make everyone cry. They touchingly give us an introduction to our main character and his life with his (now dead) wife. In just a few minutes they take what we may otherwise have called the crotchety old man and humanized his cynicism and pessimism. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to those first few minutes as far as I’m concerned. But it’s still an incredibly enjoyable film.

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#6 – Toy Story – 1995

Whether you prefer Toy Story over its sequels definitely depend on what you are looking for in a film. It can’t be ignored that there is far more depth in Toy Story 2 and 3 than the original, but the original is just so much damn fun. It’s a hopeful story with absolutely wonderful music from Randy Newman (including one of my top ten Disney songs in I Will Go Sailing No More) and is a bona fide classic. I just prefer the sequels.

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#5 – Ratatouille – 2007

There is a moment in Ratatouille that is only bested by the opening scene of Up. The critic Anton Ego has been served his ratatouille and he relives moments from his childhood where he first gained a love for food. The restaurant closes, he is introduced to Remy the rat, he thanks them for dinner, leaves and then we hear his review. It is beautiful and cathartic ending to a truly moving film. I’m going to quote the section below because it easily places among my favourite quotes of all time.

In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

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#4 – Toy Story 2 – 1999

I recall first hearing Richard Roeper’s review from At The Movies about Toy Story 2. He preferred it to the original because of how it deals with themes of mortality rather than just identity from the first film. I used to think he was wrong. But look at the brilliance of Jesse’s panic attack when Woody threatens to leave; hear the Prospector’s temptation of immortality; see and hear Woody’s conflicted thoughts on the subject. The film treats these issues so directly that it’s hard to believe this is a kid’s film. But to be frank, that’s what I love about certain animated films, they have the courage to say that animation isn’t just for children and it can be as powerful and evocative as live action. Each of the top five films here are examples of this.

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#3 – Toy Story 3 – 2010

Ditto what I said above for this film. What makes this film just a tad better than Toy Story 2 is one scene. The gang (except for Woody) has just experience hell in a daycare at Sunnyside and Woody has been taken home with Bonnie. He’s sat down for a tea party and is slightly freaking out wanting to leave. Then Bonnie returns to start playing with Woody and her other toys. We are given a sentimental look at the same kind of play shown in the opening segments of the first two films. What these toys “live” for is this kind of play. This is the first moment of this film where I start to tear up. The other is when Andy finally gives the whole gang to Bonnie at the end of the film. I don’t cry at the movies. Except for Toy Story 3.

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#2 – WALL-E – 2008

There is no dialogue in the first 40 minutes of this film. A children’s film that made half a billion dollars at the box office and was one of the primary reasons for the Oscars going to more than five films for Best Picture: and it had no dialogue in the first 40 minutes. The success of this film says a lot about just how great it is. It gives a radical, anti-consumerist, environmentalist message in a film for kids. It entertains and educated. And it’s just so much fun to watch.

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#1 – The Incredibles – 2004

This would come near the top of a list of Superhero films as well. The film functions as a kids film fantastically but it’s the other levels that bring out the greatness of this film. As a family film it deals with aging for both the husband and wife, it deals with being a teenager for the two kids, it deals with how we treat kids with Syndrome. And then on top of that it functions as a superhero film with putting every single main character regardless of gender in a situation where they need to be saved. No one is a damsel in distress in this film and then to put a cherry on top, they question the underlying problematic machismo that is used to justify the damsel in distress trope. This section of dialogue put The Incredibles at the top of this list and shoots it up the list of Superhero film for being a totally fresh take on the genre. I love this film and it is the Pixar film that I can watch over and over and over.

Mr. Incredible: Wait here and stay hidden. I’m going in.

Elastigirl: While what? I watch helplessly from the sidelines? I don’t think so.

Mr. Incredible: I’m asking you to wait with the kids.

Elastigirl: And I’m telling you, not a chance. You’re my husband, I’m with you – for better or worse.

Mr. Incredible: I have to do this alone.

Elastigirl: What is this to you? Playtime?

Mr. Incredible: No.

Elastigirl: So you can be Mr. Incredible again?

Mr. Incredible: No!

Elastigirl: Then what? What is it?

Mr. Incredible: I’m not…

Elastigirl: Not what?

Mr. Incredible: Not… I’m not strong enough.

Elastigirl: Strong enough? And this will make you stronger?

Mr. Incredible: Yes. No!

Elastigirl: That’s what this is? Some sort of work out?

Mr. Incredible: [shouts] I can’t lose you again!

[calms down]

Mr. Incredible: I can’t. Not again. I’m not s-strong enough.

Elastigirl: [kisses him] If we work together, you won’t have to be.

Mr. Incredible: I don’t know what will happen…

Elastigirl: Hey, c’mon. We’re superheroes. What could happen?

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Taking No Side is Taking a Side

Munich – 2005 – dir. Steven Spielberg

★★★★/★★★★

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I don’t think I ever expected to see a film that could follow Schindler’s list. I think I always imagined that it would be a film to watch on its own and consider the purely horrific crimes of the Nazis, the potential for human compassion from both Schindler and Itzhak Stern, and the destructive toll of violence on the world. I never expected to feel that there may be another film to fit naturally fit to the conversation. That was until I saw Munich. While its place politically will always taint its fit within the history of film, Munich is an incredible story about the destructive power and vicious cycle of violence, and it says something vitally important especially as we continue to be engaged in conflicts overseas.

At the Munich Olympics in 1972, eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually assassinated by a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September. The Prime Minister of Israel and her cabinet decide to send a secret team of Mossad agents to Europe to assassinate eleven targets who were involved in the planning of the Munich massacre. As they begin to complete their assignments the team leader, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), and other members of the team and their informants question the retaliatory methods of the Israeli government.

This thematic element got Spielberg and the film’s writer (Tony Kushner) in quite a bit of trouble. Released in 2005 at the height of support for intervention in the Middle East, especially with Israeli support in the US, this film said that not only was Israel maybe not right in their retaliatory and aggressive stance towards Palestinians and the Arab states in general, but that perhaps the Palestinians had some reason to be angry. This totally rejects the standard pro-Israel dogma of the west and it came from two of Hollywood’s most prominent Jews at that (Spielberg and Kushner). And that commentary above is all you need to know about this film to tell if you will enjoy it. If you are a) pro-Palestine (like myself) or b) can put your pro-Israel politics aside then you will enjoy this film. But it’s not that the film is pro-Palestine; in fact the best way to describe the politics is that Spielberg and Kushner refuse to take a side. They decry the violence of the Israelis, and while justifying the emotions of the Palestinians, decry their actions as well. Munich doesn’t take a side, and that says a hell of a lot about the state of American politics. Not taking a side is taking a side. Refusing to support Israel in a blunt and direct way apparently means that you are anti-Israel. And eight years later it can be said that nothing has changed.

Munich is a tense and intense thriller. It tears at your emotions and makes you feel uncomfortable. And as only truly affecting films can do, it’s had my thoughts for days (which will probably turn into weeks) since the initial viewing. The performances are great, the writing is powerful, and it maintains Spielberg’s reputation as being the master of moving and emotional cinema. 

Pixar: A Complete Ranking Part 1

As I did with the Disney Films, so I am doing with the Pixar. Unfortunately it looks like I wont be able to see Monsters University before I leave so that will be added into the rankings after the summer. As before, I’ll be going from worst to best. 

The Mediocre

#13 – Cars 2 – 2011 

This film makes me sad more than anything. This was the first film from Pixar that was truly truly bad. I know I’ve put it on the mediocre category, but for Pixar, anything that’s not good is just bad. They have one hell of a standard to live up to and anything that doesn’t meet the standard (this tacky clichéd piece of crap) is just not worth watching.

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The Good

#12 – Cars – 2006

Yepp, Cars and Cars 2 are definitely the worst films in the Pixar Canon. Cars is significantly better than its sequel, but it still is a huge step down from the rest that Pixar has to offer. Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen plays the same stock character he’s played for the past decade (charming idiot asshole with a superiority complex) and that is (to be perfectly honest) below Pixar.

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#11 – Finding Nemo – 2003

I don’t understand the infatuation everyone has with this film. AFI ranked it as the 10th best animated film of all time, second only to Toy Story as a Pixar film. It’s oft quoted and apparently when they announced the sequel the internet when up in joy. For me, it seems forced. Minus the sharks, the film doesn’t get many laughs from me and I don’t find the story al that touching. Ellen Degeneres’s gimmick doesn’t do anything for me and Albert Brooks voicing also falls pretty flat.

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The Very Good

#10 – Brave – 2013

I am not bashing Brave by putting it here. I’m glad Pixar finally had a female protagonist and I love Merida as a character. But did they have to give her such a crappy rehash of a story? Does no one feel this is just a slightly better retelling of Brother Bear? As with most of the critical consensus, I think something was missing in Brave and that it doesn’t live up to the potential of its characters or the legacy of its franchise.

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The Classics

#9 – A Bug’s Life – 1998

Kevin Spacey’s Hopper is what makes this movie great. He has a speech late in the film where he explains the role of a dictator. It’s scary and awesome and Spacey’s voice acting gives it the umph to make it truly affecting.

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#8 – Monsters Inc.- 2001

John Goodman and Billy Crystal are a fantastic pair of voice workers. They give Sully and Mike a great chemistry that really makes this movie what it is. A buddy film. The most incredible aspect of this film is that they are able to take this buddy context and give it real heart through the young girl. She is that slightly annoying but in the end endearing child that we’ve all come across. They start by grating on us but then they grow on us and just like the movie we really start to care. 

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Cosmopolis: A Study in Capitalism

Cosmopolis – 2012 – dir. David Cronenberg

★★★★/★★★★

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David Cronenberg makes weird films. There is no doubt about that. Prior to this I had only seen A Dangerous Method from 2011 and A History of Violence from 2005 neither of which are all that weird in and of themselves. His 2012 film though, Cosmopolis, is a violent, carnal, intellectual film that almost recalls films like A Clockwork Orange or Cloud Atlas where the language takes a few minutes to understand because it feels as though they have their own dialect. This is a difficult film, but if you enjoy thematic studies you should enjoy it.

This is the story of a stock trader going to get a haircut. Throughout the day (he doesn’t arrive until nightfall) this trader (played by Robert Pattinson) is sitting in his limo taking various meetings (including a prostate exam) occasionally leaving to either see his wife or his mistress. Outside there are protesters demonstrating against capitalism and using giant rats to burn the 1% in effigy.  Each meeting we see gives us something philosophical to think about from real world concerns about wealth and power to the potential frivolity of image and presentation. This onslaught of messages is overwhelming and this film could definitely benefit from multiple viewings.

Obviously what’s been described above could come off as preachy and boring (a complaint many have had) however, Cronenberg’s direction and the performances of four of the actors save this film from that fate. Cronenberg made an art film with very careful direction. Nothing was done arbitrarily and that benefits the film greatly. He was also able to get some fantastic performances. Robert Pattinson shows that he has real acting chops with this cold, almost sociopathic, portrayal of a pure capitalist. Samantha Morton and Sarah Gadon play Pattinson’s advisor and wife respectively with equally cold performances. The carnal tension between each of them and Pattinson is palpable and chilling. Finally we have Paul Giamatti who plays Pattinson’s would be murderer with probably the only real passion shown in the film. He is angry and looks and feels lost within the capitalist system. I wish that 2012 had been a worse year in film because these all rank around #10 or #11 in their respective acting categories for the year.

This is a weird film. Don’t go into this expecting to enjoy it and you might just come out with a sense of catharsis. Think of the film as a study of systems rather than the story of a character and let the film hit you with all it has. 

Disney Animated Canon: The Complete Ranking

For the other parts of this series, here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Full Ranking.

#52 – Home on the Range (2004)

#51 – Fox and the Hound – 1981

#50 – Chicken Little – 2005

#49 – The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – 1949

#48 – Make Mine Music – 1946

#47 – Saludos Amigos – 1942

#46 – Dumbo – 1941

#45 – Bolt – 2008

#44 – Brother Bear – 2003

#43 – Dinosaur – 2000

#42 – The Rescuers Down Under – 1990

#41 – The Three Caballeros – 1944

#40 – Robin Hood – 1973

#39 – Peter Pan – 1953

#38 – Pinocchio – 1940

#37 – Fun and Fancy Free – 1947

#36 – Winnie the Pooh – 2011

#35 – The Princess and the Frog – 2009

#34 – The Great Mouse Detective – 1986

#33 – Fantasia 2000 – 1999

#32 – The Emperor’s New Groove – 2000

#31 – Meet the Robinsons – 2007

#30  – Tarzan – 1999

#29 – The Black Cauldron – 1985

#28 – Melody Time – 1948

#27 – One Hundred and One Dalmatians – 1961

#26 – The Little Mermaid – 1989

#25 – The Rescuers – 1977

#24 – The Aristocats – 1970

#23 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – 1938

#22 – The Sword and the Stone – 1963

#21 – The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – 1977

#20 – Oliver and Company – 1987

#19 – The Jungle Book – 1967

#18 – Cinderella – 1950

#17 – Alice in Wonderland – 1951

#16 – Tangled – 2011

#15 – The Lion King – 1994

#14 – Treasure Planet – 2002

#13 – Hercules- 1997

#12 – Pocahontas- 1995

#11 – Aladdin – 1992

#10 – Mulan – 1998

#9 – Lady and the Tramp – 1955

#8 – Lilo and Stitch – 2002

#7 – Wreck-it-Ralph

#6 – Atlantis: The Lost Empire – 2001

#5 – Hunchback of Notre Dame – 1996

#4 – Sleeping Beauty – 1959

#3 – Fantasia – 1940

#2 – Bambi – 1942

#1 – Beauty and the Beast – 1991

The Disney Animated Canon Part 5: The Top Ten

For the other parts of this series, here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Full Ranking.

Below are the top ten films in the Disney Animated Canon. 

#10 – Mulan – 1998

Just as Pocahontas has some problems with race and gender, Mulan does (mostly) great on both counts on top of having some really fantastic characters and really classic music (Reflection is the standout). The reason I watch this film so frequently though is how great the animation is. The artwork is truly beautiful and I would put the battle on the mountain against war scenes from most any live-action movie.

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#9 – Lady and the Tramp – 1955

Probably the most purely adorable film ever made by Disney. The romance, the songs, the scary animation, it’s all a part of a film that makes me say awe reliably.

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#8 – Lilo and Stitch – 2002

I’m not really an Elvis person. And yet the thing that I really adore about this movie is how they use the music to accentuate the greatest family story Disney ever wrote. People that look real! A family dynamic with realistic arguments and problems! And Stitch’s antics alone are worth the price of admission.                                                 

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#7 – Wreck-it-Ralph

I’m also not the biggest gamer, but I definitely appreciate video games and one thing that many of us had been waiting for was a good film made for gamers. Wreck-It-Ralph gave us that film. Enough references to satisfy gamers with an actual story and characters to care about. What gets this to classic territory for me though is how they animate within Ralph’s arcade game. They try and emulate 8-bit animation and its really enjoyable and satisfying.

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#6 – Atlantis: The Lost Empire – 2001

I was seven years old when this was released and I absolutely adored it. When watching it again I wasn’t sure if I would love it the same (Dinosaur definitely didn’t hold up). But there is a moment where the King of Atlantis explains how it came that they were sunk under the sea. The story of Atlantis is a parable for the threat of nuclear power and weaponry, and that depth is what elevates the film this high. It’s a comedy, action, adventure, discovery, science fiction film and it exceeds in everything it does.

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#5 – Hunchback of Notre Dame – 1996

This film is one I enjoy more and more with each viewing. Although that is an odd way of saying it because this isn’t really a film to enjoy. It’s a film to appreciate. It is a complex and difficult film. It’s certainly not for the same audience as most Disney Musicals and that explains why it’s not as appreciated as the others. But for damn sure it’s in my top 5.

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#4 – Sleeping Beauty – 1959

One word: Maleficent! There is no Disney villain more awesome and terrifying than Maleficent. She is the standout in an already great film. Fauna, Flora, and Meriwether are next on the things to love about this film. They do most of the saving and they bring some really phenomenal comedy and touching moments to this film.  The icing on the cake though is the music; Once Upon a Dream is one of the best songs in any Disney film and the scene with it is completely elegant.

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#3 – Fantasia – 1940

For his third film, Walt Disney made Fantasia. The man was nothing if he wasn’t brave. He hoped that this would be a return to art in American Cinema and Theatre. Unfortunately it was a flop and he had to rush Dumbo to save the company. However, every penny was worth it 70 years later. Fantasia is a bona fide Disney classic and it’s because they took classic music and created brilliant and imaginative animation to compliment it. Not all films are capital A Art. Fantasia most definitely is.

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#2 – Bambi – 1942

The death of Bambi’s mother would shoot this film into the top ten on its own. The birth of Bambi’s son brings it to the top five. But it’s the art and the music that strings it all together that makes it the second best Disney film of all time. This movie has enormous heart and a really intelligent screenplay and is definitely the greatest animal movie ever made.

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#1 – Beauty and the Beast – 1991

Just like Nighthawknews, I don’t believe in the idea of a perfect film. However, I find it hard to say that Beauty and the Beast isn’t the perfect Disney film. There is nothing to criticize in this film. The music, the supporting characters, the villains, the songs, the voice acting, the animation, the story, THE MAGIC!! The film is elegant in its delivery and I just can’t get over it. I don’t know how it hasn’t always been at the top of this list. 

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If you want to send me your list or question any of my decisions here, you can go here and we can chat