Author of “The End of the Magical Kingdom” and “Attempted Rapture” picks his Top 10 movies, revised for 2019.
Portions reprinted from Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/user/id/976534075/ratings
1. The Lion King – The Only 90s Disney Movie That Went Deep
A much deeper allegorical film than people realize. A quirky animated meditation on life, death, religion and the parental inculcation of dreams and guilt in our children. As much a Prodigal Son metaphor as a vague retelling of Hamlet. I still get a lot of flack for including The Lion King in serious conversation. However, I stand by my view that allegorical stories are the most emotionally affecting. To me, The Lion King wasn’t about lions, pride kingdoms or even Mufasa roaring in heaven. It was a movie about lost faith, self-discovery and manufactured destiny.
The story of Simba running away from his parent-chosen destiny (The Circle of Life, a Christian-esque view of life amalgamated with Eastern philosophies) wasn’t just comparable to Shakespeare; this was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and James Joyce! One could easily draw comparisons of Hakuna Matata to atheism, hedonism or Bohemian independence. Therefore, the very idea of Simba returning to his “destiny” and re-embracing his childhood faith is a very bold thought. Of course, since his heavenly bound father, his lioness-friend and that creepy little monkey constantly harass him about avoiding responsibility, this suggests that Simba never really had a choice but to return to his destiny.
What choice do we have in life, but to accept our family, our religion and the principles we learn in our childhood? Was it really Simba’s destiny? Was it really a happy ending? Of course, Disney disowns any deep interpretations of their movie, it being the politically correct mouse who never judges anyone. (Except of course, child daycares that break copyright laws) To me, The Lion King symbolizes the life story of every human being-you can run away from your problems and your quibbles, but in the end, the lion in the sky always comes back to haunt you. What I Learned: Really helped me to believe, as a child, in religion, in God, and in the optimistic view of life. That everything must be connected. That coming of age is a reality of life and what you retain from your youth really defines your value in life. What you learn in childhood defines who you are and what you do with your gift of life.
Even though I’ve grown up a lot since I first saw it, I still think of this as the definitive optimistic film. And every so often, once in a while, I do write a happy ending myself. Here is an in depth analysis of the film’s symbolism that I first wrote in 2004. I’ve been watching The Lion King obsessively for quite a while now for my own personal reasons. However, it wasn’t until reading an article online (from…D’oh, forgot–obscure news journal) that I really started to understand why the movie affected me on such a subliminal level then and now. Of course it’s subliminal and self-revealing, that is why we obsessively watch anything. The article went on to explore Disney as a “moral educator”; that it had surpassed the simple role of Guardian and had stepped into the shoes of a full-fledged parent for movie going children. How so? Because of the moralizing shown in its family flicks.
When Disney presents a movie like Beauty & The Beast, in which man and woman fall in love, or Aladdin in which Robin Williams goofs off on B material while a man and woman fall in love, they are entertaining our children. But when they crossover into morality, religion and existentialism, they take on the role of moral educator and begin indoctrinating into our children. Should they be doing this when children who watch Disney films are at an especially impressionable age and might possibly be incapable of fully accepting the concept of faith or morals from someone other than mom or dad? After all, would you allow your toddler aged son or daughter to listen to a full grown man explain his view of God, the bible and evolutionary theory?
I was more or less a kid when I first saw The Lion King in 1994 and these are the lessons I believe I was taught at a somewhat impressionable age of 17. (Keep in mind, preaching to a kid any younger than a teen is almost inculcating) The simple (and possibly alarming) fact is that the Lion King borrows heavily from the Bible. And Shakespeare. And ancient mythology. Everyone knows that LK is loosely based on Hamlet and other works but it adds a bit more trepidation when you learn that the supposed word of God is being drawn in funny shapes and expressions–and in an alternative universe.
Consider well known biblical story lines and Disney’s caricaturized interpretation of them. Paradise that a man rules over, given to him by God. Mufasa tells Simba everything the light touches is your kingdom. But God commands Adam not to partake of the forbidden tree. But that shadowy place is “beyond” Simba’s borders, a place which he may never go. Adam breaks the law. Simba defies his Father’s order and walks on the wild side of danger. Instead of Adam going along with Eve and finding death, Nahla follows Simba and they are met with disaster. Fast forward to the halfway mark: Simba becomes the Prodigal Son and leaves his “spiritual” responsibilities behind. Meanwhile the monkey sees that a promised Lion-ssiah will return to the kingdom, that has been lost in spiritual/literal darkness, and reclaim his rightful kingship and restore the desolate wasteland to paradise once again. Parallels to Revelation and the Gospels abound–and paradoxically, traditional Christianity is pushed here, which is in sharp contrast to the next point I learned…”We Are All Connected in the Circle of Life” – Darwinism now contrasts the teaching of traditional Christianity, teaching us that we are all connected in a never-ending chain of life and death. Our bodies become the dirt, the grass as Mufasa tells Simba, and we must respect the life in everything. Fascinating how in one animated film Christianity, Hinduism and Darwinism have been amalgamated into one unquestionable Lion Religion.
Speaking of religion, is the Lion King a religious movie? I think the answer is surely Yes, although again, it combines many other religions into a caricature “true religion”. During one of the best moments of the whole movie, Simba and his new friends Timone and Puumba speculate what exists above the sky and into the stars. Simba recalls his “religious” upbringing in which he was told by his father was DOES lie above the stars–the great kings of the past. However, Timone and Puuma here take on the roles of agnostics, laughing at Simba’s explanation, and pushing their worldly wisdom of Hakuna Matata and the cynic’s view of spirituality. Timone says the stars are fireflies–he sees the stars as a poet would, having no real concept of a Godlike being, but only of what he has observed in his very limited perspective. Puumba sees the stars in a purely scientific manner, believing them to be balls of gas burning billions of miles away. Of course, he being a very flatulent creature, he explains only according to what he knows.
The ultimate moral lesson of course, is that every creature has his own way of viewing the world. And everyone has their own unique brand of faith. There’s more to see (about faith) in this movie than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done, (at least in this post). Mufasa’s death was graphic and took place on screen–far surpassing the unseen death of Bambi’s mother years ago. Was it wrong to teach children about cold blooded murder and to depict the violence in such a beautifully drawn scene as the wildebeest stampede? I don’t think so because children need to learn about death, about injustice, and about the fact that “Life’s not fair is it?” It does take away some of their innocence but given the message of the movie and the hope it restores, to depict a death early on in the film is a necessary evil. It was also a good move to show Scar’s death, as it teaches that criminal scheming and deception will always result in punishment. Disney should be “respected, saluted” for being this daring. “You Are More Than What You Have Become”, an angry Mufasa explains to Simba from beyond the grass. Haunting words, when thinking about the implications it gives us as an audience. What do we owe anyone, besides that we live and breathe and try not to eat each other?
While I think there is a religious subtext here, pushing people to faith & religion of some sort, I also think that this scene is just as much about guilt and redemption. We all suffer from trauma in our lives, mistakes of the past or unrequited ambitions that we never fulfilled. Analyzing it from a nonreligious standpoint, if there is something that we yearn to do, and yet hold back from accomplishing out of fear, resentment or guilt, then we are being a Simba–we are running away from what calls to us. Is it belief in God? It can’t be absolute preaching here, since Disney is also advocating Darwin’s philosophy that life is a never ending chain of circular events, life and death, decomposition and conception. So we have to take it that Disney is painting a surreal picture of “faith” open to our own interpretation as unique and varied human beings–it is whatever we make it out to be. Are we running away from our self-granted destiny or do we have the strength of a lion to face our greatest challenge and conquer the demons of the past? But the biggest lesson to learn here is a tough one: “I know who you are. You’re Mufasa’s boy,” says Rafiki, teasing a brooding Simba late one night. Speaking again of destiny and of quasireligious undertones, when you really get down to it–what more can we expect of a child, but that he grows up to be who his parents want him to be?
Children are mostly the product of their upbringing. Bad children grow up into bad adults as a result of a bad household. That leaves all the good children, all well behaved and with loving parents, who each go their separate way because of the subtle but solid parental examples that were left behind for them. It wasn’t Simba’s obligation that he become king. His father could have looked down on him and wished him well, living with a warthog and eating bugs all day. But it was Mufasa’s will for his son that he become king, as his father did, and his father did, and etc. The example parents set for their young ones leave a definite mark and becomes a burned image of grown up success in the mind’s eyes of a young person. There is a good chance that if a boy was taught by father to put work ahead of family that he will grow up to be a wealthy workaholic. (ala “Cats In The Cradle”)
On the other hand, if a girl was taught by her mother to be strong-minded, industrious and proactive in the community, you can bet this girl won’t be sitting at home content to be just another housewife. Lastly, if a young man is raised by parents to believe in a particular faith or an understanding of God, though he might go soul searching in his rebellious youth, it’s likely he will follow in their “pawprints” when he settles down in life. On the other hand, a little boy, raised in a household with no specific religious study, will have no specific “faith” to turn to, and may even find the thought of a “religious” discussion about The Lion King out of place and nonsensical. We cannot escape our destiny. We all do have a destiny, you know. And whatever that destiny is, is determined when we are young and as we spend time with our moral educators who teach us the circle of life–as they see it. Coming from an extreme religious background myself, I do see a lot of faith discussion in the movie, whereas others only read the more general faith-healing message of Live & Let Live. Remember, all are agreed as they join the stampede you can never take more than you give. Meaning, no matter your faith or belief, be good to one another! (A nice safe message worthy of Jerry Springer…the only clear message Disney would be allowed to give in a press release, but certainly not the only one they implied) The Lion King is a great film because while it entertains and educates our children, it also provokes deep discussion on all things symbolic, literal and interpretive for adults who are willing to pay close attention to its allegory.
2. Cabaret – Death of the Hollywood Musical
One of my favorite films of all time if not the best. The death of the Hollywood musical – profoundly political and humanistically tragic but made quirky and fun by chorographical genius Bob Fosse. In 1972, the death of the glamorous musical occurred. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret became a mainstream hit, and people realized that singing in public (in a world that was becoming morally complicated) just doesn’t happen very often. So Fosse did the unthinkable and trapped one of the best collection of songs ever written (By Kander and Ebb) inside a cabaret club in Germany, where the Nazi ideology was slowly but surely arising. It’s hard to choose a musical number in Cabaret that isn’t madly catchy, perverted and fun, but the most powerful moments in the film come from songs that deftly mix tragedy and comedy.
Liza Minnelli’s final “Cabaret” song is desperately sung in such a way that suggests she is putting on a smile for the show while her heart breaks in secret. The fact that she sings about Chelsea (the same place her mother Judy Garland died) is just fundamentally wrong (I think it shows in Liza’s fish-eyed gaze) but helps Liza to nail the song perfectly. However, the best moment in the film is unquestionably Tomorrow Belongs to Me. If you have ever been put on the spot to express some form of patriotism but hesitated, then you can relate to this moment. The scene is so beautifully shot and the song is so beautiful, you wouldn’t think it’s a Nazi call to action at first. The sad fact is that the Nazis wrote pretty songs like we do, and had political campaigns like we do. I wonder how many of you would have stood up for the song out of respect or because of peer pressure if it was your country? With these sorts of themes, it’s no wonder that Bob Fosse’s Cabaret killed the American Musical.
One of the few songs in Cabaret (the play, not the musical) that wasn’t endlessly depressing I actually used in my wedding. No, it wasn’t Two Ladies. It was “Married”, a clowny song that suggests life isn’t that bad and marriage isn’t that scary. “For you wake one day, look around and say, somebody wonderful married me.” What I Learned: Taught me that singing and dancing is a tragedy; that we find our own reasons to be happy. We entertain ourselves amid terror, tragedy, and our own kind that we can never trust. Helped me to understand how gullible people really are. Also, had the song “Marriage”, which my mother sang at my wedding.
3. Pulp Fiction – A Writer’s Inspiration
Revolutionary film that practically spawned the 1990s and 2000 era of storytelling. Not only reminded the stuffy movie industry not to take itself so seriously, but also combined absurdist comedy with crime drama, and deep literature with cheese. In the year 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was a trailblazing film, a fiercely independent and pulpy sponge of a motion picture that dared to be different in an industry dominated by clearly defined genre pictures.
It’s a film that’s easy to take for granted now that we have so many postmodern art films of the new age that are conforming to the “unpredictable masterpiece” formula. The fact that Tarantino was underfinanced was God’s gift to cinema-in the 1990s, by all logic, this movie should have been cleaned up and turned into a god awful Godfather knock-off or a campy Jim Carrey vehicle so that mainstream audiences could understand it. Pulp Fiction showed us, the audience starved for unpredictable plots, that mainstream movies didn’t have to take themselves too seriously and yet they could still tell dramatic story arcs with cheekiness and a wink of self-awareness.
Many people misunderstand Pulp Fiction…it’s not a thoroughly original masterpiece. It owes much of its style to David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. What makes it amazing and the definitive 1990s films, is that it’s a collage of movie genres that don’t belong together, and yet are neatly packaged in a pulp noir collection that combines the best and worst fashion of every decade since the 1940s. In every single frame, it has an homage to another motion picture that preceded it. It was an underground comic book come to life and one that somehow snuck to mainstream attention with far too many famous faces to seem real. To me, Pulp Fiction was the celebration of independent filmmaking finally triumphing over studio-created schlock. Miramax backed it and ushered in the age of independent “hits.”
It was an uncompromised vision brought to the screen, which finally proved the artist more powerful than the studio suits. If Orson Welles had lived to see it, he would obsessively applauded by the end credits, ala his great scene in Citizen Kane. What I Learned: Definitely helped with the postmodern dramedy format. I was relieved to see the world as Quentin saw it, as I wanted it to be, with an unpredictable narrative, and a very bawdy and audacious sense of humor-even when there were moments of silence. He really helped me to see that no matter what you write, it doesn’t have to be dishonest, and yet it doesn’t have to conform to set rules. He really helped the Independent Artist to reach a point where he could tell a story without compromising the vision.
4. Closer – A Movie That Will Make You Fall in Love with Play Script
Mike Nichols is the most underrated mainstream director in history. With Closer, he made the definitive portrait of an era film, analyzing 1990s casual dating culture. One of the few films that explored the sublime joy of seduction, along with the dark commentary that conquest isn’t always what it promises to be. What is such a quiet and unpleasant movie like Closer doing on a list otherwise dominated by loud and beautiful art pieces?
I actually like Closer just because it is the worst romance movie ever made. There is something brutally honest about the screenplay, written by Patrick Marber, which examines the ugliest perspectives of couples and relationships. Anyone who has ever lived through a bad relationship can relate to one of the four archetypical characters in the film, or at least loathe one of the characters because of their “familiarity” to his/her own ex. Yes, Closer was a little too smart to be realistic (people in America don’t really talk this elegantly) but it was the perfect representation for romantic suffering in the modern age.
I fell in love with Closer during a time in my life when I found out firsthand out ugly love could be, how cruel people could be, and how such cruelty was nothing more than survival instinct. Mike Nichols is not exactly a visionary, but his films never fail to gouge the heart. Closer is not pleasant to watch and will age you a couple of years, but it’s a must-see movie for anyone who has ever fallen from Cloud 9. What I Learned: Really helped me to grasp that a lot of relationships are screwed up. That no coupling is perfect, and you might have to get a little dirty before you find something real and something worth keeping. I love Patrick Marber’s obsessive and hopelessly cynical dialog. Truly a feel-bad movie classic that has inspired more cynical narrative in my own work.
5. Dogville – Troll movie Reaches the Level of Art
Dogville might not be my personal favorite, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said it it’s the best movie ever made. It combined everything I love about the theater with everything great about independent films and foreign films. I have forgotten most of the movies I’ve watched over the past 17 years but I still remember the first time I watched Dogville and the second time I watched it, with my parents, who were scandalized, but of course very enthralled with the allegorical subject matter. It’s very long and minimalist but it’s very much anti-imperialist America, which is why I liked it.
It’s classified as an international film since Lars is Danish, the production companies are multiple countries, and the cast is British / American. The movie got pretty savage reviews by the US media, mostly decrying the fact that it was vitriolic, anti-American and bitter. That was one of my coming-of-age moments when I realized most critics don’t know what they’re talking about. Since when is passion in art a bad thing? Few films, outside of the torture porn genre, will fill you with as much righteous fury as Dogville. The film is an exceptional allegory for mankind’s gross sins against his own people.
As much as we would all like to believe that the film is about man’s suffering and the injustice of mob mentality, there is one important point we’re all missing. This is about your country! Dogville is the harshest criticism of American values I’ve ever seen and that is strictly because of its allegorical simplicity and G-rated content. This ambiance makes Lars Von Trier’s vitriolic commentary seem like a Disney cartoon on crack. Nicole Kidman’s performance is brilliantly naive and yet subtle enough to suggest she doesn’t know what the movie’s about. (She does…she’s an Aussie) The many bizarre cameos by American actors just amaze me. (Sonny Corleone, what were you thinking?)
Dogville is a triumph of manic depressive, prejudicial rage. What I Learned: Definitely one of the movies that made me lose faith in humanity. Realizing that your own country is capable of great evil, and that people you trusted are fully capable of exploiting your weakness and your forgiveness, is frightening. I think Dogville is a movie that disillusions you and brings you to a new level of consciousness. Like Kubrick, another influence of mine, I think Lars’ voice-his distrust of humanity-is a strong voice in my head I have yet to shake.
6. There Will Be Blood – Allegorical Film That Breaks Your Senses
Is just PT Anderson’s best work to date? Possibly the best independent movie ever made. Wonderfully provocative art walking a fine line between uncompromising character study, troll cinema, and emotionally detached historical piece. Not only understood the depths of narcissism and flaw of capitalism, but single-handedly reduced the “Serious Oscar Bait” category to mockery. Emotionally cathartic for every moviegoer who frets about the ills of the world but demands allegory for comfort’s sake.
When I first saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, I was annoyed. Annoyed at the abrupt final act, and annoyed at Daniel Plainvew’s life. Then I realized, about a day later, this was American filmmaking at its ballsiest. Daniel Plainview is a magnificent caricature of American values, and his 19th century industrialist disdain for human life, is somehow the perfect embodiment for 21st century selfishness. He is what we are, what we will become, and what we fear the most.
The movie itself forces us to consider our own personal dichotomy of religion and faith (through the hypocritical Eli character) and materialism. Whichever you choose, you lose your soul. What I Learned: I am embarrassed to admit that I really relate to Daniel Plainview. I know I shouldn’t but I do. His lack of attachment to people, his burying himself in a profession that doesn’t “love” anyone, and his mistrust of everything except what his own hands can reach was a terrifying vision of what a naturally anti-social person can easily turn into. In art and in life, I am always running from Daniel, the definitive peak of decadence that you never want to reach, as an artist who strives to inspire people for the betterment of humanity, and as a human being who must always love people more than life experience. Otherwise, everything is worthless.
7. Moulin Rouge – Rebirth of the Hollywood Musical
Not just the resurrection of the joyful musical, years after Cabaret destroyed it, but also the one true idealistic afterthought that Love Truly Exists, even if it’s fleeting, even if it’s doomed. A wonderfully optimistic movie, with nuances that might be lost the first time you watch it. A joyful tragedy and visual masterpiece that still dwarfs all other lavish musicals. Moulin Rouge! is a visual assault masquerading as a musical.
Baz Luhrmann’s film is hyper and surreal, a childhood view of romance and freedom, with love as the most shimmery and exotic of effigies. It’s a movie intended to alienate most music lovers and challenge regular moviegoers with psychedelic visions posing as rambunctious merriment. Yes, it is the ultimate “poser” movie and posing was where the 21st century was headed. People forget that Moulin Rouge! was singlehandedly the movie that brought back the musical to Hollywood, after the genre’s untimely death in 1972.
While Evita was released a few years before Moulin Rouge!, that movie was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gratuity to Hollywood; a lazily imagined vanity package for Madonna. Moulin Rouge! was the evolution of music in show business-proof that we never stopped singing, we just needed a change of scenery. What I Learned: I fell in love with this movie just as I lost someone I really cared about. I think the psychedelic doomsday vision of “love” really helped me through the grieving process. I also think it really helped me to fall in love with The Musical. Up until this point, I don’t think I associated music with art. I think this film, with Cabaret, showed me that music could be grief; it could be tormented art; it could be therapeutic and not just a fake smile to the world.
8. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Sharp Enough to Hold the ADHD Crowd Even 60 Years Ago
Mike Nichols’ original masterpiece, as much a horror as it was a comedy and a literary tragedy. This movie forced American cinema to grow up and embrace not only darker subtext and more profane subject mater, but also morally ambiguous concepts.
While I’m sure Edward Albee didn’t invent literary comprehension on screen, the creative team here certainly were the first to pioneer the concept to Hollywood – still stuck in the golden era. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not only controversial for its day (one of the movies that helped bury the Hayes Code) but also a wonderfully warped mind trip that is still shocking almost 50 years after the fact.
The movie has multiple layers of depraved entertainment; it is a marriage farce, a battle of old time wits (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at their most imprudent), a coarse perspective of relationship counseling, and of course, it has a plot twist so brutal, you’ll never play games at the dinner table again. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has two things going for it: it’s based on a play by Edward Albee (the best scripted films are always based on plays) and it’s directed by Mike Nichols who has an enormous sensitivity when he’s directing couples on screen. This PG rated drama is still the most disturbed thing you’ll see in any given month.
What I Learned: I really think Edward Albee and Mike Nichols’ creation is where I got some of my harsh and caustic wit. Of course, I always thought really disturbed and funny things in my own head, but until Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf I never knew it could be so deliciously fun to torment people with using only your quick-witted mind. There was great sadism in this sarcasm and it helped me realize there is no need to bite your tongue-at least not in art.
9. Goodfellas – Rare Interactive Film Experience That Still Eschews Mainstream Entertainment
I’ve heard Goodfellas referred to as the “working class” mobster flick, with the profanity and graphic violence that characterizes Scorsese and that disgusts the wealthy class who embraced Godfather’s deceptively patriarchal vision of love. Perhaps, but what really made Goodfellas unique was the way Scorsese made the mundane cinematic, and mocked the over stylized storyboarding of the most obvious mainstream director cliches. In short, Scorsese didn’t film a movie, as much as he captured the absurdity and misanthropy of real life.
Goodfellas’ strange but real world sense of humor and palpable tension between egomaniacal figures paved the way for Tarantino and David Chase’s The Sopranos. In essence, a deconstruction and caricatured rebuilding of what a crime drama ought to be. Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece features a lot of unlikable characters and snitching wise guys. But Tommy DeVito was so menacing he managed to play antagonist to even the bullies and murderers that trusted him. Joe Pesci’s brings this character to life and gradually builds fear from its basest element, since in plain view Tommy Devito is short, goofy looking and has the voice of an Italian clown. Few actors could make such an under whelming presence into a modern monster.
10. The Shining – Kubrick At His Most Brilliantly Obscure
This movie has both inspired and de-motivated me to write. On one hand, it’s refreshing that Kubrick saw Stephen King’s novel as the ludicrous bore-fest that it was. At the same time, he took the subtlest things from King’s work, (the dichotomy of creative madness and fatherhood) and actually created a moving piece of art that transcends entertainment horror.
Every frame in The Shining is technically crafted to perfection, while every plot twist and ironic piece of dialog is allegorical, and in many cases, symbolic of American culture. I won’t be one of the ones to claim Kubrick “confessed” anything in these movies. For all I know, he trolled the world by playing with iconic symbols as recklessly as Pollock. What is clear is that when Stanley finally succumbed to the maze of human existence, we lost the last great cinematic painter in the spirit of Wells and Hitchcock. I think you have to view Stanley’s work as abstract paintings, cultural parodies, and troll art (alluded to everything without ever actually making a clear point) to truly understand what he was going for…Eyes Wide Shut was his most obvious collage…this one was the most subtle.