Note: While this is primarily a blog which focuses on under-addressed spiritual matters (mostly pertaining to what’s covered in the Two Churches Only books), and the various ways in which those matters tie into secular institutions (especially politics), I often utilize concepts, examples, and/or general ideas from movies which relate to the subject at hand. Therefore, it only seems fitting and informative to disclose my taste in films, that the reader may get a feel for my cinema sensibilities and processing.
All my life, I dreamed of becoming a movie director. It was the only career I could imagine for myself from ages 7 to 24. I lived and breathed movies. I had a photographic memory for them — I could literally sit down and play them back in my mind, scene for scene, from beginning to end. After a second or third viewing, I could remember every single line of dialogue nearly verbatim.
I have fond memories of lying in bed at age 10, unable to fall asleep, entertaining myself by playing back The Return of the Jedi in my mind from intro to end credits. From ages 13 to 15, I spent one or two Saturdays a week by scouring the newspaper to find a megaplex showing three films I want to watch, having my mother drop me off there in the early afternoon, paying for a matinée ticket, then theater hopping from one screen to the next as each film finished and the next one started. After taking in three straight movies, I’d call my mom to have her come pick me up. By the time I got a driver’s license and qualified for a VHS rental card (this was back in the day when VHS rental stores were up-and-coming), I’d rent and watch at least two movies every weekend. One of my most treasured books was Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion (1989 edition) — I read it from cover to cover, and sought to watch every single movie he gave 3 and a half to 4 stars to. I often watched movies that I had no interest in whatsoever, just to analyze them — to objectively understand how they appeal to their target audience, and to gauge whether or not the film making and script writing was commendable or sub-par. I later spent four years at two universities studying film art, film history, the greatest film masters and their works, and the ins and outs of great film making. I can safely estimate that I have watched over 2000 movies over the course of my life.
From ages 7 to 24, movies were not a hobby to me — they were my imminent career path. A path I painfully and completely abandoned all hope of going down by the time I was 30.
Given my life-long passion for film, I would hope that in presenting a list of 10 movies (out of 2000+) that these choices will actually mean something to readers, even those who might vehemently disagree with me on all things spiritual, political, or idealogical.
Keep in mind, I am not nominating these films as the “Greatest Movies Ever Made” — that would be a considerably different list. Instead, these are the 10 films that have most impressed upon me, deeply moved me, or otherwise have had a profound impact upon me throughout my life.
#10 — Batman Begins (2005, dir: Christopher Nolan)
Henri Ducard: Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s “understanding”…. [They] mock society’s laws. You know this better than most…. Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.
Bruce Wayne: That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.
As a teen, there was only two other pastimes I enjoyed as much as watching movies: playing video games and reading comic books. Batman was among my favorite superheroes, and Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns was tremendously influential on me. I must have read it cover to cover at least 20 times, perhaps 30 or more. I felt so strongly about it that I once declared to my high school classmates that I was destined to one day direct it as a movie.
I spent hours analyzing the panels and thinking of all the cool ways to turn it into a movie. In playing out the Batman-Joker fight sequence in my mind, I conceived the exact same “bullet time” visual technique which was introduced to the world a decade later by The Matrix.
At the time, I loathed nothing more than the campy Batman TV show. When I was 15, I first got wind that they were making a Batman movie, but that it was going to star Michael Keaton (who had just played the title character of Beetlejuice), and that it was going to be directed by the up-and-coming quirky visionary who directed Beetlejuice, Tim Burton. My heart sunk. Everyone was excited about it when they saw the trailers — I wasn’t. Everyone was pumped to watch it when it came out — I wasn’t. I groaned over and over again as I watched it in the theater, and then I walked out feeling disgusted. I felt as though I was the only person in the world who could see how awful it was compared to how amazing a really great Batman movie could be. If they could only see the Batman movie already inside my head! It took three more increasingly-awful sequels for people to finally look back and realize that the first Batman film had not only aged badly, it really wasn’t all that much better than the garbage-on-celluloid that came after it.
Years later I read that Christopher Nolan was going to helm a Batman reboot. Having seen both Memento and Insomnia, I knew that Nolan was one of the most naturally-talented new-generation director/storytellers. My hope was rekindled that, finally, Batman can be done justice on the big screen. Still, I tried not to get my hopes too high.
As I watched Batman Begins in the theater, I was beyond amazed. From the first 15 minutes, I knew that this movie was a game-changer — a full-on, repeated, head-butt-in-the-face of every writer/director who had ever had the privilege to be given the funding and license to make movies of beloved, established, developed comic book characters, then flush them down the toilet in multi-million-dollar wastes of celluloid mediocrity. As I watched Batman Begins, I realized that I was watching the Batman movie that I had only dreamed of making 15 years prior, as a high school student. It was as though I was watching MY OWN MOVIE; as if someone had gone into my mind and constructed a movie out of my ideas and concepts for how to do Batman right. It was absolutely surreal.
I walked out of the theater in a trance, almost a stupor. I said to myself, “I have waited 15 years to watch that movie. And it was so worth the wait.”
Three years later, Nolan shocked the world with the next Batman movie, The Dark Knight — an exponentially more gripping, visceral, and elementally unsettling masterpiece of cinema, which dared to burrow deep into the psychosis of the masses and personify the unseen universally clashing forces of order versus chaos. The Dark Knight truly is one of the greatest masterpieces of cinema, permanently raising the bar and expectations of what a “comic book” movie can be; all other comic book movies are now compared to it, and every bit of their glaring inferiority is readily and justifiably made plain. Even Nolan’s own trilogy finale, The Dark Knight Rises, somewhat pales in comparison to The Dark Knight, despite it being an excellent film and delivering an all-around satisfying trilogy conclusion.
Yet, if there was no Batman Begins, there would not have been The Dark Knight. If there was no Batman Begins, most comic book movies being made today would continue to have the affront and audacity of trying to force audiences (and fans with decades of history with these characters) to be content with triteness and banality, often glossed over with hundred-million-dollar-plus eye-candy special effects. Most recent case in point: Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I suppose has best been summarized by Forbe’s film critic, Scott Mendelson, as “a treat for the eyes, but it will hurt your brain and break your heart.” And I know it will really break my heart — the film’s premise completely rips off the well-crafted and carefully built-up final act of The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel that I cherished so much in high school. I paid for four full-priced theater tickets for my family and I to watch Snyder’s not-quite-passable Superman reboot, Man of Steel, back in 2013. I won’t pay a single cent to watch this new superficial, over-hyped empty shell of a Batman/Superman movie. For anyone interested in a quality Batman vs Superman story, I strongly recommend watching the animated faithful adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel.
Christopher Nolan, I thank you for your intelligence, sensitivity, vision and determination that made Batman Begins and the other Dark Knight films the pinnacles of comic book character adaptations that they have become.
#9 — Skammen (Shame) (Sweden, 1968, dir: Ingmar Bergman)
“Sometimes everything seems just like a dream. It’s not my dream; it’s somebody else’s. But I have to participate in it. How do you think someone who dreams about us would feel when he wakes up?”
When film critics, film school students, and anyone who knows anything about classic European cinema thinks about Ingmar Bergman, invariably they think about his beloved classics The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona — or possibly they think about latter masterpieces, such as Fanny and Alexander. All of those films are incredible. All of them belong on any list of the greatest movies ever made.
However, when it comes to the visceral power and incredible passion communicated in Bergman’s film making, nothing compares to what I experienced when I first watched Shame. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see. At the time I was a film student at the University of Utah, taking upper-level courses on the greatest film masters. Each semester we would focus on the works of different directors: Hitchcock, Scorsese, Bergman, Truffaut, etc. On the day that we were to watch Bergman’s Shame, my thoughts were along the lines of “What a title! That just about sums up every single Bergman movie. Shame! Shame on you! Shame on me! Oh, the shame of it all! LOL.” I sat down expecting to behold a not-as-great-as-other-Bergman-films melodrama.
What I experienced for the next two hours ripped me to the core. Terrified me. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. I was stunned. Speechless. I was witnessing war. True war. I had seen dozens of “war” movies. No. Now I realized that those were not war movies. This is a war movie. This is what war is. This is what it feels like. This is what it means to be in a war. This is the pain, suffering, loss, and horror of war. To lose your home. To lose yourself. To have your personal relationships irrevocably changed or lost. To lose everything, including all hope and decency. Until there’s nothing left but survival instinct.
This is war. This is shame.
I can honestly say that Bergman’s Shame is one of the few films that had so much impact on me to forever change me. It was the first thing to open my eyes as to what war really is. Sadly, only a paltry few “war” movies are actually about war. Fewer dare convey it accurately. In my mind, there’s only one other war film that comes close to Ingmar Bergman’s Shame: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. War is Hell. Hell is War. If a movie does not transport the viewer to Hell, then it is not truly a “war” movie.
Bergman dared to show us glimpses of Hell. Sadly, few people — even Bergman fans — remember that he made it at all. Few would consider it one of his most accomplished films; I argue that it is his most accomplished and his most important. I love Bergman’s work, and as great as nearly all of his other films are, Shame is the only one that impacted me enough to be placed in my Top Ten.
#8 — The Lego Movie (2014, dirs: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
“You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe…. And so am I. And so is everyone.”
Look, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute! Seriously?! THE LEGO MOVIE?? Yeah, it was a pretty fun movie, but come on! You just lost all credibility. You’ve watched over 2000 movies in your life, have studied dozens (if not hundreds) of the greatest masterworks of cinema of all time, and you mean to tell me that THE LEGO MOVIE is your 8th all time favorite movie??”
To put it simply and without reservation: Yes!
Some perspective: Several decades ago, the very talented but mostly-forgotten Marx Brothers made several light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, ridiculous movies that were very much a product of their time, primarily the 1930’s. One of their best films was called Duck Soup. If you go and research every first-generation credible movie critic out there, you’ll find that nearly every single one of them has listed Duck Soup as one of the top 10 greatest movies ever made.
When I watched Duck Soup as a film student in the 90’s, already aware of the extremely lavish praise dozens of respectable film critics had laid upon it, I sat there feeling very perplexed. I waited and waited for something to stand out that would make it clear exactly why so many critics would value this film so highly. By the time the movie ended, nothing did. I walked away from Duck Soup thinking, “The Marx Brothers are remarkably talented and (old-school) comically brilliant, but that movie is NOT top-ten-greatest-films-of-all-time material. Not even close.” I went on to read reviews that provide an old-school perspective, explaining why it deserves to be among the top ten films of all time, but I still didn’t buy it.
That is, until I watched The Lego Movie. Twenty times and counting.
On the surface, The Lego Movie is trite, celebrates collectivism and faux-positive thinking, and throws nearly every cliché imaginable at the screen. Even the catchy “Everything is Awesome” song might as well be an anthem declaring “Babylon is Awesome!”
However, the more that an observant (and spiritual) person digs under the surface, the more one realizes that underneath all its rapid-fire quirkiness, all this gaudy secular silliness, resides one of the most profound, articulate, breath-takingly deep, shockingly original, artistically-accomplished — and, yes, even spiritual — movies ever made.
Additionally, I have a soft spot for stop-motion animation — the animating of physical objects, not 2D drawings or computer-generated imagery.
For those unfamiliar with how stop-motion animation is made, imagine doing this:
- take 29 dominoes, a camera, and a table
- aim the camera at the table, and place each domino on the table one by one
- take a picture of the table each time you place a domino
You now have 29 pictures of a row of dominoes appearing one by one on a table. Flip through all those photos in one second — you now have a 1-second-long stop-motion animated film of dominoes appearing “magically” on a table. Congratulations! How long did it take you to make that 1 second movie? About 20 minutes?
Now, imagine instead of dominoes, you have a small-scale movie set with pose-able dolls. How long would it take you to take 29 photos of highly sophisticated, emotive dolls moving ever so subtly in order to create ONE SECOND of simulated life-like movement. I hope you now have a greater appreciation for the art and expertise that goes into creating something like a Wallace and Gromit short movie, or even just an old-school episode of Gumby, let alone any of the recent full-length masterpieces by the studio Laika. Really, just sit back for a moment and think about it: how much creative planning and expertise is required to create even 5 minutes of stop-motion animation?
Of the many incredible things The Lego Movie is, it is an unabashed homage to traditional stop-motion animation. Despite that the movie was made in rendered CGI (computer-generated imagery), it was painstakingly created with the glorious sensibility and artistic development of traditional stop-motion. Every single frame of the movie is constructed of realistically-rendered Lego bricks that only bend, move, and function exactly like real Lego bricks. Waves of flowing water are frame-by-frame constructions of collections of blue and white Lego bricks. Explosions are frame-by-frame expanding, then decreasing, red-glowing masses of lighted red and black Lego bricks. Fire is simply glowing little orange Legos that are shaped like flames. Every Lego piece that is used in the movie is an actual piece that one can acquire in real life, and they move and/or behave only within the limitations with which they are physically capable of as with real Legos. Even the decals of the “instruction” manuals and the printed patterns on the characters’ “clothing” were created and rendered to perfection to imitate real Lego designs. Only the animated facial expressions of the characters were beyond the limitations of real-life Lego physics.
The end effect is so expertly and painstakingly artistically accomplished that I honestly could not tell if the film was an incredible stop-motion-animation mega-project, or a lovingly, aesthetically-limited-to-real-Legos modern CG film. (I only learned the answer after watching the end credits, and later watching featurettes to learn how they did it.)
Enough about the technical details — the biggest reason why I unapologetically list it at number 8 in my Top Ten is because of everything that the movie is and expresses under the surface. The profundities and stunningly-piercing social commentary are near-limitless.
Take this brief sample of dialogue:
Protagonist: “President Business is going to end the world in three days? But he’s such a nice guy! And Octam, they make good stuff! Music, dairy products, coffee, TV shows, surveillance systems, all history books, voting machines. Wait a minute—”
To which the character “Bad Cop” immediately interrupts with: “Come on! You can’t be this stupid!” — insinuating that the protagonist is deliberately playing ignorant despite having all the pieces right in front of him that testify how genocidally-monstrous the villain, Lord Business, really is.
Ponder for a moment the real-life-equivalent message of what the film’s creators are brazenly implicating here, thinly disguised as dictatorial silliness.
The protagonist might as well be saying: “Our elected leaders and the CEOs of multinational corporations are working in conjunction with megalomaniacal world bankers in order to usher in something they’re calling a “New World Order”?? But they’re such up-front, affable guys who really care about us! And those companies produce incredible stuff:
- catchy worldwide Top 40 Hits seeped with embedded Luciferian symbolism;
- a brutally-effective, de-agriculturalized meat/dairy industry rife with DNA experimentation, cloning, and increasingly-resistant bacterial contaminants;
- tasty, addictive beverage products and confectionery laced with stimulants or toxic metals;
- laff-a-minute, single-repeated-punch-line, lowers-viewers’-intelligence TV reality shows and sitcoms;
- super-fun attention-wasting cell phones, video game systems, tablets and laptops that have at least one camera, microphone and GPS unit installed in them, which at any time can be remotely activated and record their owners without their knowledge or consent, transferring unfathomably-copious private personal data either to Apple, Google, or Microsoft, who then archive it and (complicit or not) make it accessible to unaccountable government entities, but this is all somehow OK because it helps “national security”;
- all “acceptable” accounts and retellings of historical events are established by secret-society-funded-and/or-initiated Ivy-league graduate experts, and their final-word on such matters are unquestioned and repeated ad infinitum throughout academia (i.e. “history is written by the winners”);
- Diebold and other manufacturers of large-corporation-produced voting machines that are so easy to hack by a single “inside” individual that it has been demonstrated on camera (and testified about in court) that a relatively-tech-ignorant person can do so in less than 60 seconds.
- Wait a minute—
Think I’m exaggerating the depth and skewering intent of the directors’ social commentary? Who is the only character capable of free-thought within the entire Octam corporation? Lord Business. Everyone else is, literally, a robot. What’s the inescapable social commentary here? Multinational corporations are staffed, from top level managers to mailroom clerks, with mindless, programmed, brown-nosing Yes-Men — doing anything and everything the executives request, never questioning the morality of any of it, so that they can bring home a first-world-lifestyle-sustaining paycheck. (cough-cough-SNARED-IN-THE-BONDS-OF-INIQUITY-DEFINITION-cough-cough-coooouuugh)
You know what that is? That’s damn-brazen, telling-it-like-it-is satire — the kind of rubbing-it-in-your-face that bars a brilliant, ballsy film like this from even being nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, despite that it deserved winning it.
I’ve just scratched the surface.
The movie even dares to delve into spiritual profundities that, even after twenty viewings, still strike my soul powerfully. Of all the movie ideas I’ve developed in my mind over the decades, one of the most ambitious I had involved a microcosm, limited world that was completely oblivious of the macrocosm world that surrounded it and influenced it and observed it — each of this microcosm’s inhabitants had no more than a four-year lifespan, and no one seemed to know how or why their social system was established, nor why everything was the way it was — they one day appeared in this world, without any knowledge or preconceived ideas, they learned to accept or reject the social patterns, norms, and taboos, and were free to explore all the varied theories of the meaning and purpose of their microcosmic existence. At various times, a humble handful of these inhabitants were communicated with by the “gods” of the macrocosm world. They were taught macrocosmic principles and given instructions, as well as the support to proceed in carrying out the will of these “gods,” who genuinely loved and cared for each one of the inhabitants. The Lego Movie is the only movie (that I’m aware of) that comes close to realizing and actuating this kind of story concept. When we meet the “gods” of this microcosm Lego Movie world, my heart swells every time I watch one of their “gods” look directly at the protagonist, and say with respect and great affection: “Hi, Emmet.” The sequence of this “god” sending Emmett back into the microcosmic Lego world, empowered to do “his will”, is among my all-time favorite scenes ever put to film.
Lastly, and quite possibly most brilliantly: every single plot point, every single key event, and all that occurs throughout the movie could very believably be conjured up by a 10 year old child with an overactive imagination, and a natural penchant for understanding diverse personalities and character development.
In the 80’s, when I was between the ages of 9 and 13, I had a cardboard box filled with mostly-generic Legos. My younger brothers and I would dump out its contents on the carpet and spend hours just building things. 9 times out of 10, we concocted oddly-colored, blocky, bastardized spaceships with whatever pieces we had to form semi-symmetrical somethings, which we pretended to be the equivalent of intergalactic battleships. Considering the character of Benny the Spaceman (also referred to in the movie as “1980’s Space Guy”) I get the feeling my brothers and I must have been far from alone in how we played with our Legos. The moment in the film when Benny gets his big chance to build and commandeer a spaceship, convulsing with glee, literally tearing up the landscapes, repeatedly shrieking “SPACESHIP!!” as if he was spazzing out with Turrets Syndrome, is one of the most emotively nostalgic and gutt-bustingly-funny moments ever put to film for me.
Everything truly is awesome with The Lego Movie. To the directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and the extremely talented, passionate team of CG artists that made their vision a reality: I tip my Marx Brothers’ hat to you. You have created the Duck Soup of the 21st century — a feat exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.
#7 — Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) (Italy, 1948)
“Forget it. Let him go. I don’t want to bother [filing out a criminal report]. The man has enough trouble. A fine example [he has] set for [his] son.”
If you have seen this film, then you probably understand immediately why it is on my list.
If you haven’t, it’s pretty much impossible to convey in words how deeply this film impacts the thoughtful, empathetic viewer.
The story is straightforward: post-WWII Italy, work and money and resources are scarce, more than half the population is one bad day away from abject destitution. A husband/father lands a coveted job that requires a bicycle; his wife and him pawn nearly all their belongings to afford releasing his bike from another pawn broker’s storage and then repairing it. Their spirits are high; their hope renewed. This is the break they need to claw away from the brink.
On his very first day on the job, first thing in the morning, his bike is stolen. For the remainder of the film, we emotionally join him and his young son on a desperate crusade to recover his bicycle, on which the survival of himself, his wife and his child depend.
The actors were all amateurs, but you would swear you’re watching play-by-play live footage of real people living their real lives, going through the most desperate and heartbreaking day they’ve ever faced — knowing that failure meant an irrevocable turn down a path of long-term misery and helplessness.
These people know pain; they know what destitute is. You can see it in their faces. You can’t fool people like this with inept platitudes that “positive thinking” can bring inner peace, that the “universe” will honor one’s efforts to enact the “law of attraction” and fulfill one’s focused wishes. They know that their fate, their doom, is imminent — unless they assert every effort, try every possibility, to manage an escape from the void.
It is one of the most unforgettable and painful cinematic journeys you will ever experience. It is one of the few films powerful enough to catalyze real change in how people treat their fellow men. Joining them on their quest puts the empathetic viewer through an experience so exquisite as to be able to generate change within one’s self — to reevaluate, understand, and be sympathetic to the undisclosed pain of those who choose to do us wrong. It is a marvelous, unique, perspective-altering film.
It is a film that everyone should watch at least once in their life.
#6 — Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai) (Japan, 1954, dir: Akira Kurosawa)
Kikuchiyo: What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy [i.e. sneaky, conniving] beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn them all! — But then who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labor! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?
Shimada: ….. You were the son of a farmer, weren’t you?
There was a period in my young adult life when I became borderline-obsessed with classic Japanese cinema. To the lay-movie-watcher, that probably sounds like I went nuts watching every gawd-awful old-school Godzilla sequel and every other piece of Jap monster tripe imaginable.
Thankfully, no, that is not what I mean by “classic” Japanese cinema. Today, with all the toxic sludge coming out of Japan — poisoning, corroding, and infecting the entire earth (and I mean that both literally and figuratively: Fukushima and porn, respectively) — it might seem impossible that Japan ever contributed anything of moral and artistic value during the 20th century (with some of the few exceptions being the works of Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, and composer Joe Hisaichi).
Though it might be hard to believe, there was a time when Japan produced some of the greatest cinematic art that the world has ever been blessed with. Sadly, these masterworks of cinema seem to be increasingly forgotten by most everyone, especially the Japanese people themselves.
After discovering a handful of them for myself during my high school years, I simply couldn’t get enough of them throughout my college years studying film. In the early 1990’s, these films were almost impossible to find in America — but find them, buy them, and watch them I did, even if it meant saving up and shelling out as much as $50 to buy limited edition VHS tapes or Criterion Collection Laserdiscs.
Names like Kurosawa, Ozu, and Misoguchi don’t mean a thing to people clueless to cinema greatness; to people like me, these names are to cinema what the names Galileo, Newton, and Einstein are to science.
In some ways, it’s a bit cliché to list Seven Samurai as my sixth-favorite film, being that of all the cinematic greatness that came out of Japan from the 40’s to the 60’s, it’s probably the only one that just about any movie buff has ever heard of. And yet, overall, I have to admit that this one in particular is more endearing, strikes me more powerfully, and I have reflected upon it more frequently than any of the others.
Some tend to criticize the director, Akira Kurosawa, of being the least-“Japanese”/most-Western-flavored of all the classic Japanese directors. While there is considerable merit to this criticism, yet the power of his films are undeniable — they are undeniably his own personal blend of Western storytelling aligned with traditional Japanese aesthetics.
And for me, Seven Samurai is the encapsulation of all that is great — not just of Kurosawa’s gifts, but of the power, mastery, and importance of the best of classic Japanese cinema.
Do yourself a perspective-altering favor: set apart one night to just sit down and watch Seven Samurai without any interruptions, preferably with a thoughtful loved one you can discuss it with as you both watch it. After that, explore some of Kurosawa’s other great films, notably: Ikiru, Rashomon, Ran, and Red Beard. Then look into Kenji Mizoguchi and some of his great films: Ugetsu Monogatari, 47 Ronin, and Street of Shame. If and when you are ready for the pinnacle of Japanese cinema, dive into Yasujiro Ozu: Late Spring, Early Summer, Good Morning, and Tokyo Story.
After watching these films, you will begin to comprehend the subdued, introspective greatness of classic Japanese art and culture; you will bitterly mourn the death and loss of this greatness, and, like me, curse the wretched modern lusts of this once-great nation for allowing itself to become the world-infecting cesspool of glossy, soulless, perverse anime, manga, and pornographic shit it has become today.
#5 — The Straight Story (1999, dir: David Lynch)
“All my [World War II] buddies’ faces are still young. And the thing is, the more years I have, the more they’ve lost.”
If you are in any way familiar with the name David Lynch, then you’re no casual cinema connoisseur. If you’ve ever watched a David Lynch film other than The Elephant Man, you’re probably not a Mormon (or would possibly not be considered a “good” Mormon). In studying the art of film making I’ve seen nearly all of his films, and there’s at least a couple of them I would prefer to un-see. But here’s the problem: he’s absolutely brilliant. I give credit where credit is due — and the majority of David Lynch’s films deserve a great deal of credit, even the ones that I find morally distasteful.
Lynch is an esoteric film maker. There’s no such thing as one meaningless second in any of his movies. Every scene, every shot, every frame means something — perhaps it may only mean something to himself, yet he is capable of communicating subconscious matters within his films that are simultaneously profound, unsettling, and universal.
I never really understood the majority of Lynch’s films until I was led by the Lord to the research material that I present in my books. Now that I understand these matters, it is obvious — very obvious — that Lynch is familiar with secret societies, initiations, occultism, Satanic ritual abuse (SRA), alternate personalities (DID), mind control, and living a family/suburban life that appears to be moral, all-American, and apple pies on the surface but troubled with deep Freudian complexities, immoral filthiness and secret abominations underneath.
Having said that, there is something both curious and marvelous about Lynch’s body of work: the tone and subtext of most of his films focus on the pain, confusion, remorse, and trauma of those captive within esoteric dimensions — or, as I put it in Volume II, “Wonderland.” He focuses primarily upon the struggles and psyche of Wonderland’s victims, especially the women, yet he also dares to occasionally sympathize with the hidden pain that Wonderland’s predators harbor. In a nutshell, David Lynch is curious about and empathetic towards the inhabitants of Wonderland, both the victims and the perpetrators. Perhaps one can argue that he is seduced by Wonderland, or has been taken in by seducing spirits, but it is undeniable to me through the focus of his cinematic prowess that he is a deeply caring and empathetic man who respects and sympathizes with his characters and their trauma and dilemmas.
For me, this particular quote Lynch gave in an interview with Roger Ebert effectively summarizes the kind of person and artist he is:
“When I was little, my brother and I were outdoors late one night, and we saw a naked woman come walking down the street toward us in a dazed state, crying. I have never forgotten that moment.”
It must have really had an impact on him, because Lynch approaches many of the female characters in his stories with tremendous sympathy, as though they have endured trauma of the magnitude that he witnessed of this poor young woman.
As for my #5 favorite film, David Lynch’s The Straight Story — after reading all this about the director’s other films, you might be shocked to learn that not only is The Straight Story rated “G”, it’s also distributed by the Walt Disney company. Yes, you read that right — rated G and distributed by Disney. Many fans of David Lynch’s work were offended by these fact alone. Most of them that bothered to sit down and watch the film disliked it — all they saw was some slow-paced, tepid, uneventful, non-Lynch-like middle-America sludge. Quite a few of them assumed that Lynch had sold out to Disney and made some tame, morally-scrubbed, rural-America lullaby of a film to be marketed to “red-state, moral-majority, artistically-inept, self-righteous, gun-totin’ dipshits.” Some actually felt betrayed by Lynch, baffled as to why he would make a film that comes across as the inverse of everything else he’s ever done.
The bottom line is that these people refuse to admit that they don’t understand David Lynch nearly as much as they think they do.
On the surface, The Straight Story is a film based upon the true life experience of an elderly small town Ohio man named Alvin Straight. When he learned that his estranged younger brother, Lyle, suffered a stroke, he was determined to visit him. Lyle lived 300 miles away in Wisconsin. Alvin’s eyes were bad, he couldn’t drive. He refused to take a bus or let someone else drive him out there. What he decided to do was to drive his riding mower all the way out there. He created a small makeshift travel trailer that he hooked up to it, in which he could sleep and store some basic camping supplies, and then he hit the road. It took him nearly three months to complete the 300 mile journey, but he did it. He visited his ailing brother, Lyle.
The Straight Story is in every way a David Lynch film, albeit it is one in which he explores the psyche of the twilight years of rural-American life instead of the psyche of the victims and inhabitants of esoteric realms. Much of the small town context of the film is representative of Lynch’s own small town American upbringing; I can’t help but sense that this film is not only Lynch’s love letter to his childhood memories of the townspeople he grew up with, but also his emotional, psychological projection of the human journey coming to a conclusion.
Alvin [to some young adult cyclists]: You don’t think about getting old when you’re young. You shouldn’t.
Cyclist #1: Must be something good about getting old.
Alvin: I can’t imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time, but still, at my age, I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away.
Cyclist #2: What’s the worst part about being old, Alvin?
Alvin: The worst part of being old is remembering when you was young.
Everything that happens throughout the film, every bit of dialogue that is exchanged — on the surface it appears to be just a casually-paced journey and polite small talk. Below the surface lies endless profundities concerning the human condition, personal relationships, and life’s experiences both wondrous and terrifying — I dare to submit that the entire meaning of life is encapsulated within this film, but only those who are carefully observant will have the tools to extract and appreciate it, and be thereby rewarded.
To gauge if you have what it takes as a film viewer to do so, chew on the following quotes:
“There’s no one knows your life better than a brother that’s near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth. My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but, I’m trying to put that behind me. And this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I’m not too late. A brother’s a brother.”
“Anger. Vanity. You mix that together with liquor, you’ve got two brothers that haven’t spoken in ten years. Whatever it was that made me and Lyle so mad, don’t matter anymore. I want to make peace. I want to sit with him, look up at the stars. Like we used to do. So long ago.”
If you can’t read anything awe inspiring and profound beyond the surface, don’t bother to watch this film — you won’t get anything out of it.
As the film comes to a close, Alvin arrives at Lyle’s home. We have joined Alvin throughout his pilgrimage of remorse, introspection, and penitence. He arrives at Lyle’s house a humbled, completely vulnerable man. Lyle isn’t as ready to be as humble and vulnerable himself. But then he see’s Alvin’s riding mower and trailer. He can’t take his eyes off of them. It begins to dawn on him exactly what his brother must have gone through just to visit him.
“Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?”
“……. I did, Lyle………”
When I watched The Straight Story in theaters 17 years ago, I was a young man, but a young man who immediately grasped the power and importance and depth and wisdom-gained-from-experience of what I had just witnessed. I absolutely loved it. I was seated in the third row, and as I walked past the rest of the audience towards the exit, the sight was burned into my soul as deeply as the movie was. It was far from a sell-out crowd, the theater was only about 1/3rd full, yet every patron there couldn’t have been under 60 years of age. As I walked by them, I witnessed elderly couple after elderly couple, holding hands or holding each other in revered silence. Many were weeping silently, still staring at the screen (portraying a sense of gently moving through the stars in the heavens), listening to the subdued instrumental end-credits music.
They felt it all even more powerfully than I had. They knew Alvin better than I could at the time. The older I get, the more I experience, the more lives I observe, the more I get out of this unique and incredible film. I cherish it.
#4 — Les Miserables (2012, dir: Tom Hooper)
“For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plow-share; they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!”
I hate musicals. Even as a child I hated them. I enjoyed most Disney animated films, except for any singing parts in them. I clued in pretty early that the majority of Disney films are rather-poorly-told “Disney-fications” of classic tales, padded throughout with somewhat-catchy, often-banal songs that grind the story to a halt, rarely contributing anything to the narrative. The protagonist would meet some new character, then they’d spontaneously break out into singing and dancing to some irritating saccharine tune. Every single extra character in the vicinity would suddenly jump in and start dancing and singing with them by the time the chorus kicked in. Every time this occurred, I would feel subjected to three forced, kitschy minutes of abject, pointless torture — which would finally conclude in a gaudy, ear-spitting, brain-shattering, unmoving crescendo. Then everyone would suddenly go back to what they were doing, and the main characters would finally get back to continuing the damn storyline.
I think that if real life were like a mediocre Broadway or Disney musical, I would have slit my wrists or put a bullet through my brain long before my 16th birthday. One of the reasons I desperately cling to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is because I know exactly the Hell that awaits me should I fail to adequately serve my Savior and my fellow men: I will be forced to perform in some gawd-awful, over-zealous, ultra-cheesy, amateur production of Hello Dolly…….. and I’d be forever cast as the Barbara Streisand-led title role of Dolly. “Listen, Bar-na-beeeeee!!” For eternity. How I would beg and plead for molten pools of brimstone and to be perforated incessantly by red hot pitchforks.
All joking aside, I still greatly dislike musicals, but now that I am a father and have experienced my children getting joy out of some of the more endearing ones, they don’t bother me as much. I can enjoy and give credit to quite a few of them.
When I was twelve years old, I was invited to join some extended family members to watch the Broadway production of Les Miserables a short time after it came to Los Angeles. I had no idea what the story was about, and although I disliked musicals, how could I pass up the chance to see a live Broadway production?
I was completely unprepared for what I experienced during the next few hours. Despite not quite fully comprehending everything that was going on, I was powerfully moved by the entire thing. I still vividly recall much of it today, over thirty years later. I didn’t see Les Mis as a musical — it felt to me as though I were privy to the souls of the characters in the story — and that the songs were not songs, but the fears, passions, struggles, and inner torment of these fascinating people. I was completely riveted from beginning to end.
Having been thus converted to the power of a live Broadway musical, I was thrilled and anxious when I visited New York with my family two years later. We watched a performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats — which, at the time, was at its pinnacle of popularity. I can sum up that experience with one big fat word: underwhelming. I was sorely unimpressed. I was unmoved to the point of boredom. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for a second — all I could see on that stage was previously-desperate-yet-now-full-of-themselves egotistical thespians in full-body cheetah tights, flamboyantly striking poses and constantly trying to out-diva each other with every single number. By the time the bombastic, pretentious, iconic tear-jerker Memories was performed at the end, I felt nothing. I really wanted to enjoy it, but it all rang so hollow and tawdry and self-aggrandizing — especially compared to what I experienced with Les Mis.
I never sought to watch any more Broadway musicals after that. I discovered that Les Mis is an extremely special anomaly — so much so that (in my opinion) to apply the term “musical” to Les Mis is about the same as smearing it with feces.
Fast forward to 2012, I hear that they’re turning the — ahem! — “musical” version of Les Mis into a movie. People already tried to boil the 1200-page unabridged novel down into a 2-hour movie in the 90’s, starring top-notch actors, and it was barely passable. How much worse will they butcher the amazing Broadway production when they put it to film?
Most critic reviews were positive, but I still wasn’t convinced. Les Mis came to theaters and left, and I didn’t see it. In early 2013, my daughter watched it after it was released on video. She was blown away and insisted that I watch it — I still refused, citing that there is no way it can do justice to the Broadway production. After my daughter persisted a few more times, I finally sat down and watched it one night after everyone had gone to bed.
Needless to say, I was beyond astonished. This film version not only did the Broadway production justice, it was superior to it in every way. Despite the star-studded cast, I never once ceased to believe that I was truly watching Valjean, Cosette, Fantine, Javert, Éponine, Marius, and the Thénardiers. I wept several times throughout. I wept uncontrollably during Valjean’s final moments and the triumphant ending with the martyrs singing in unison. I continued to weep for another twenty to thirty minutes after it concluded.
I now use this film in my English teaching curriculum with the Taiwanese high school students that I teach part time. I start by discussing the world-wide importance and influence of Victor Hugo’s novel. I then have each student look me in the eye and promise me to not fall asleep, to pay rapt attention while watching the film (this is mostly to ensure the engagement of under-performing students).
We watch the film in 15-to-20 minute segments, then pause and discuss the characters, their background, their personalities and motives, and the events that transpire. There’s a couple of moments I always look forward to. The first one is after Valjean steals Bishop Myriel’s silver and is shortly thereafter caught. The constables tell the Bishop that Valjean “had to the nerve to say you gave him this.” “That is right,” Bishop Myriel retorts, and proceeds to hand Valjean not only the bag of silver tableware, but also his two heavy solid-silver candlesticks — the most valuable objects the Bishop owns. He thanks and dismisses the constables, then charges Valjean to “See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.”
I pause the movie after the Bishop finishes talking (singing) to Valjean and I present the students with a scenario: “You have a super nice, caring father. One day, he sees a homeless, smelly drunk in the street. He decides to bring him to your home, treat him to dinner, and let him sleep on an extra bed. How would you feel about that?” The students always have a look of concern and discomfort on their faces. One or two will raise their hand and say that they would think their father was crazy. Then I continue: “Overnight, the bum goes through your house. He steals your father’s wallet with lots of money, he steals your mother’s jewelry, he steals your brother’s iPad, he steals your cell phone, and then he runs away. In the morning, the police bring him back to your house. They give back all your stuff, and say ‘This guy had the gall to say you gave him all these things.’ Then your dad hands everything back to the stinky bum and says ‘He’s right. We did give him these things. Here you go. But hey, you forgot something, sir. You forgot that I also gave you my car, too. Here are the keys. It’s parked across the street. It’s yours now.” The students are always shocked and incredulous when I spell out this scenario. I explain, “The silver plates Valjean stole aren’t very heavy. Back then they’re only about as valuable as some jewelry, some cash, and a couple of iPhones. But those heavy, solid silver candlesticks probably weigh more than three times as much as that whole bag of thin silver plates. In today’s value, it would be like giving someone a car for free. That is what this amazing Bishop is doing — he is sacrificing all of his valuable possessions in the faith that Valjean can become a great, honest man. For the first time in Valjean’s life, someone is not only trusting him, he is sacrificing almost everything for him.” I then encourage the students to pay attention to how Valjean processes this trust, and to note his choices and changes throughout the rest of the story.
The other moment I look forward to is when the film introduces the Thénardiers (the innkeeper and his wife) and young Cosette and Eponine. When we pause after the Master of the House scene, I ask the students questions about little Eponine and get feedback as to their feelings about her. They always respond that she’s a spoiled child, destined to be a slimeball like her parents. I then say to them, “I want you to know something before we continue: I really, really love Eponine. She is my favorite character in the entire story.” Their jaws always drop when they hear this. I reassure them that many of them may feel the same way by the time the movie is over.
After we complete the film, I give them a handout with a list of the characters and what concepts each of them symbolize. We then discuss everything in detail, and their final project is to write a paper based on several questions which I pose on the handout.
The aspect I focus on the most is the relationship and symbolism of Valjean and Javert. Post-repentant Valjean represents mercy, forgiveness, and long-suffering while Javert represents law. Mercy and law cannot co-exist, hence Javert sings “I am the law and the law is not mocked…. There is nothing on earth that we share, it is either Valjean or Javert.” I then explain that when there is perfect mercy, there is no need for laws or for government-induced punishment.
I give the students an example: I walk up to a student and pretend to mug him. I jokingly pretend to beat him up, take all his money, and run away. I then discuss how the only way for the victim student to obtain any kind of justice is if laws that punish criminals are able to intercede on his behalf.
“However,” I stress, “what if this happens: I, the mugger, haven’t been caught yet, but I now feel terrible for what I have done. I find the student again, and I give him all his money back. Then I give him a very heartfelt apology, tell him how extremely sorry I am for what I did, and I offer him additional money for his suffering and doctor bills — and, most important, I make it clear that I will never ever do something like that to anyone ever again. If you were the mugged student, would you forgive me?” Invariably, everyone in the class agrees that they would forgive me. “So, do we need law now? The victim is satisfied and has forgiven the mugger, and the mugger has changed his ways. How fair would it be if the law now arrested the mugger — regardless that the victim has forgiven him and he is no longer a danger to anyone — and threw the mugger into jail for 10 years? Would that be fair? Would that create justice?” The students agree that it would be unfair and would actually create injustice.
Then I bring it home for the students: “If everyone in the world was exactly like Valjean — perfectly forgiving, perfectly merciful and understanding — then we wouldn’t need “law.” Everyone can work out their differences and their problems directly — intercession by governmental authority would be unnecessary. The entire purpose of law is to create justice, to establish fairness, equally for all citizens whether rich or poor — but what happens when laws are unfair, and/or the punishments do not fit the crime? Valjean spent 19 years in jail for one stupid little theft: he stole some bread. If the owner of the bread had simply forgiven Valjean and did not get the law involved, Valjean would not have wrongfully and unjustly suffered for 19 years. Therefore, in a perfectly merciful world, there is no need for law. This is what Javier realizes. His whole purpose in life is to establish justice by upholding the law. But, eventually, he realizes that the law is often unfair, can be manipulated by people with wealth and status, and can actually create greater injustice. That’s when Javert has his crisis: he is a paradox! He has spent all his life working towards creating justice, and yet — more often than not — he is only creating greater injustice in his inability to be merciful. What can he do? He says it himself: it is either Valjean or me — I cannot exist in the world of Jean Valjean. When he commits suicide, it is symbolic that mercy has won — that forgiveness and understanding have made law unnecessary.
“What is the message in all of this? What is the moral? It is this: mercy is more important than justice. It is better to seek a world of perfect mercy than a world of perfect justice. It is far superior to be merciful, like Valjean, than to always seek to enforce fairness and justice, like Javier.”
I had no idea how deep this multi-part lesson would resonate with the senior students of the Applied Foreign Language department during the fall of 2013. I had no idea that they would sign up for the annual school-wide performance competition. I had no idea that they decided to choose Les Miserables as their theme. They wanted to surpise me. For weeks they prepared extensive props and choreography. Because I’m a part time teacher, I wasn’t on campus the day of the competition. I didn’t know anything about it until I arrived the day after. Excitedly, they showed me the recording of their performance in the competition.
They recreated a simplified version of General Lamarque’s funeral, and the battle of the revolutionaries at the barricade — all with choreographed sound effects and background music. They sang, they performed, they were passionate about it! At the end they joined together as an entire class:
Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!…
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring when tomorrow comes!
“Teacher, we won the competition! We won first place!…… Teacher?… Are you OK?……… Teacher, are you crying?…”
#3 — It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, dir: Frank Capra)
“Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is NOT the movie everyone thinks it is. It is NOT a sweet little Christmas fable. It is NOT a moving little cinematic ditty with memorable characters. And it’s certainly NOT a light-hearted classic to be frivolously enjoyed with family and friends during yuletide once a year.
What it is is the most anti-Babylon, anti-Lucifer, anti-secular-world, anti-natural-man, most-Christ-like, most-selfless, most-moral film of all time. It also happens to be one of the most depressing, distressing, truly terrifying films ever made.
It’s a Wonderful Life is the greatest, most damning sermon ever preached outside of canonized scripture. Everyone who watches it shouldn’t rejoice, they should tremble — tremble from the weight of their own moral inadequacy (and I don’t mean sexual morality), selfishness, and personal failures as flawed and covetous human beings. They should slap their own faces in shame and grovel on the ground in sackcloth and ashes, petitioning the Lord for mercy that they fall so very short from Peter and George Bailey’s examples.
In all the times you’ve watched this film, did you ever catch and ponder what was written below the picture of Peter Bailey in George’s office at the Bailey Building and Loan?
Aside from the Golden Rule, that might be the only statement that encapsulates the whole of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
When I think of It’s a Wonderful Life, I think about the scene with George, seated in the living room, struggling not to emotionally implode from unbearable stress — his little son sitting on his lap, casually putting bits of tinsel on George’s head — then, in sudden desperation, George embraces his son and kisses his cheek repeatedly, tears streaming out of his eyes. Within minutes after this, he emotionally cracks and begins to sharply snap at his children, harping on everything they are doing. He looks upon his personal workspace, upon the projects he’s done with what precious little free time he has. He violently smashes them all to pieces. He has collapsed under the weight of his duties to his fellow men — a near-impossible task he didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and has never been appreciated for after taking it over from his father — and now he is facing financial ruin, social exile, and incarceration… all due to the incompetency of his dimwitted uncle, and the festering greed of his adversary.
He gets a grip for a moment, looks upon his stunned wife and scared children staring at him. He tries to apologize to them, tries to smooth out the pain and ugliness they’ve just witnessed shoot forth out of him. He realizes that he can’t at the moment. His breaking point is when his beloved wife scolds him for behaving this way in front of the children — she doesn’t comprehend the depths of despair that he is teetering on the brink of. George then leaves to face the sole option he has left: to grovel before the feet of his nemesis (whose dishonesty and greed is directly responsible for his predicament), to beg him for help to get through the worst of all crises that he has ever had to face. And in less than 24 hours it will be Christmas Day — and his younger brother will be paraded into town, having been awarded the Congressional Metal of Honor.
Peter and George Bailey are my heroes. When it comes to “the ways of the world,” everyone ought to ask themselves: What would Peter or George Bailey do?
Take about 15 minutes to really put yourself in George’s shoes. You were born in a small, close-knit town. Ever since you were a young child, your dream was to travel, explore, see the world. You saved every penny you earned to do so. You are an extremely bright and ambitious individual — you are chomping at the bit to attend college to learn design, architecture, and engineering. You dream of contributing your brilliance towards the creation of advanced technology, better living conditions, effective and important structural edifices for all mankind to benefit by. You dream of celebrating your successes with your charming, lovely, supportive wife by treating her to wondrous nights on the town, big shows in the big city, luxury trips around the world. The glory of this future is not only achievable, you know you are capable of soaring even higher than what you currently imagine! It’s all you ever wanted!
Your father runs a tiny little financial office dedicated to building quality, affordable homes, providing sympathetically-collected mortgages to non-wealthy individuals. He has given his life to it — to serving the people of his town, while barely profiting enough to sufficiently meet his and his family’s needs. Additionally, your father’s modest work has been key in preventing the complete financial take-over of this little town to a calloused, ruthless, self-serving, bitter, aging real estate and investment mogul.
On the eve of your inaugural exit of this little town — to finally get out and see something, anything — your father suffers a fatal stroke and passes away. Out of the love, honor, and respect you have for your father, not only do you not leave, you spend the next three months sorting out your late father’s business matters. You finally complete your role in all of that, and it’s time to go to college. Your train will be leaving in mere hours, but then you are told by the board of directors of your father’s business that they will sell it all off — they will abruptly end the legacy of your father and all his work for the community — unless you agree to stay and continue running it, to continue in your father’s shoes…….. shoes you never wanted to wear in the first place. Again, out of love and honor and respect for your father, you agree to do so. All the travel money you’ve saved throughout your life, all the money you’ve saved for college tuition fees, you give it to your younger brother so that he can attend college.
For four years, you thanklessly run your father’s shabby little financial office — surrounded by quirky and mostly-incompetent assistants — helping clients with zero financial savvy, who really have no clue as to how blessed they are to do business with someone like you. You not only won’t milk them, fleece them, and overcharge them when you can easily get away with doing so, but you also barely make any profit whatsoever from doing business with them. Additionally, your friends have all graduated college by now and are busy making themselves rich and successful, far away from your small little hometown — the little town you’ve always dreamed of leaving, and you’ve never once done so.
However, your little brother has graduated with his Bachelor’s degree and is heading home. You made a deal with him: you gave him all your college money and you’ll run the Building and Loan for four years; in return he’ll run the Building and Loan for four years and will likewise put you through college. Then everything can be made right. Then you can finally get on track with your life’s goals. But when your brother gets home, he also brings a surprise: an adorable wife — whose father owns a successful business, and he is eager to hire your brother and put him to work immediately.
Your brother doesn’t honor his end of the deal. In your bitter disappointment and frustration, you pay a visit to the only young woman you’ve ever had feelings for. As she prattles on and on about how much she missed your hometown, and that she hopes to live here forever and ever, it just turns your already-upset stomach. As you leave, feeling even more bitter and disappointed than when you arrived, your old friend (who is now filthy rich and living the life you wanted and could have had) calls on the phone. You begrudgingly talk with him while standing next to the one girl, the one amazing young woman who ever struck your heart chord. You reluctantly realize: “She’s the one. She’s worth it. She’s worth sacrificing all my dreams for. And she’s in love with me, too.”
For a moment, your egotistical side gets the best of you. You despise her passion for your hometown, and you grab her by the arms and shake her and try to convince her that you don’t need her, and don’t want her… but you know it’s a lie. You do need her. You’d do anything for her. You cave in. You abandon your ego and embrace her — everything about her — and start kissing her madly. And she, you.
She becomes your world. She becomes everything you live and work for. She is your one bright spot in your miserable failure of a life (or so you see it). She gives everything to you, and you give everything to her. Together you pool your individual fortunes into a thick stack of cash and are determined to get out of town and spend it all on the most memorable two weeks of your lives. The honeymoon of honeymoons. You just got married, you’re both in the taxi to the train station. You drive by the Building and Loan. The doors are locked and many customers are gathering outside, looking terrified. Your bride begs you,”Please, let’s just go.” But you can’t. You sense it’s bad beyond belief.
And it is. Your customers want all their money back, now. They’re scared, desperate. They like you and trust you, but they can’t understand what you mean when you explain “Your money’s not here. It’s in Joe’s house, and a dozen others. You’re giving them the money to build, and they’re paying you back as best they can.” You plead with them to understand the machinations of the old bitter mogul — that if they give into this fear now, they will forever destroy any chance of financial independence for themselves or their posterity in their beloved town. They still don’t get it. Consumed with fear, willful ignorance, and desperation, they’re about to depart and sell everything to the mogul, when suddenly your wife pulls the stack of your personally-sacrificed savings out of her purse — your personal cash and hers — and loudly announces “How much do you need?!” She’s on-board. She will sacrifice with you for the sake of these people.
The majority of the townspeople are saved from the brink and are able to recover, thanks to you and your new wife’s tremendous personal sacrifice. Yet, the townspeople really don’t give a shit. They really don’t. They are thankful, ever so thankful at the moment, but they willfully remain blissfully ignorant and don’t bother to try to “get it” that their town is slowly being consumed by the mogul. By not getting it, they will never truly appreciate what you and your wife have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, for them.
In all of this, throughout all of this, you see yourself as a pathetic, washed up, hopeless failure. You have never once even left your hometown. Not once. You drag yourself to work every day, thanklessly providing the entire town the means to have a comfortable, stress-reduced, higher-standard-of-living life — and you barely earn enough to feed your family, keep a roof over your head, and keep your clunker of a car from falling to pieces. All your untapped brilliance, all your creativity, all your energetic drive, all your talent that could have been applied towards “greater things,” provided you the life you always dreamed of living — it’s all gone. Wasted. Kaput. You now live a thankless life of drudgery, of vastly-underused potential, of deep dissatisfaction…….
………… or so you suppose.
This is George Bailey, one of my heroes. His father, Peter Bailey, is an even greater hero. Peter didn’t require divine intervention to “get it.” He gladly and cheerfully served and served, gave and gave, sacrificed and sacrificed. George required divine intervention to finally “get it.” While his father was joyous from the start, George was miserable until his grand epiphany was given. If George had persisted in his seeking his personal dreams, if he had not decided to honor his father’s work and legacy (and thereby surrender all his ego), he would have never “gotten it.” He would have lived out his days, happy as a gluttonous clam, reveling in and supporting and building up Babylon — and then he would have died far more miserable than at any point portrayed in this film, having never comprehended Christ’s words: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 10:39) Christ’s work is in bringing to the earth His kingdom of freedom, of equity, of fairness, of the elimination of scarcity, and of “no poor among them.” For this to happen, one must love one’s neighbor as one’s self — to be generous and forgiving and sacrificing in all things.
Peter is a greater man than George, yet it is George’s story and experience that we each need to contemplate: what does it take for each of us to “get it”? Yeah, we think we get it, but do we really? Do we honestly get it?? How many people out there who love this movie, who claim that it’s so inspiring, who count it as one of their favorites — how many of them ever make any changes to actually be like Peter or George Bailey?
If given the choice, how many people who love this movie would choose to be uber-wealthy like Sam Wainright, who glories in his riches and profits tremendously from military contracts? Or how about Harry Bailey, who abandons his commitment to George, yet receives oodles of worldly glory as a war hero? How many people would actually choose to be Peter or George Bailey (especially if it doesn’t include the incredible perk of being married to Donna Reed)?
Personally, I am convinced that the original story that the movie is based on is something that happened for real to the author or someone he knows. I have read about dozens of NDEs (Near Death Experiences) and other kinds of miraculous accounts that have produced similar results in individuals of the caliber that George experiences in the movie — most often these experiences happen to those who, like George, strive to be moral and were facing the crisis of crises in their life. They qualify for a heavenly epiphany due to their honorable choices and the demonstratedly-righteous desires of their heart.
Still not convinced that the core story of It’s a Wonderful Life is depressing and distressing? Did you ever really pay attention to what George Bailey says when he’s complaining to Mary in the kitchen, just minutes before his breakdown?: “Why did we have to have all these kids??” Can you imagine the stress, the near-hopelessness, that a decent, moral, genuinely-Christian father would have to endure before such words ever escaped his lips?
Did you know that when the movie came out, it bombed? Did you know that the film hit so close to home back in the mid 1940’s to the point that the audience left depressed and disturbed, despite the mega-cheery and overly-optimistic veneer Frank Capra applied thick layers of? Every other cheesy-sweet Capra film ever made was a success, but this one was the only one that actually lost money. Can you imagine spending over a decade in abject poverty during the Great Depression — knowing first hand on a daily basis the struggle and hopelessness that George Bailey encounters — then having this movie painfully remind you of those really bad years while pretending to be a light-hearted film? Can you sense the disgust someone like this would feel towards the ultra-deus ex machina ending? For the modern day viewer, the end of the film is nostalgically endearing and powerfully moving — at the time of its release the bulk of the film was too depressing, too shocking, too close to home for audiences that when George finally learns to love his life and appreciate his blessings, and his friends and family come to his rescue, it just wasn’t enough.
It’s a miracle that It’s a Wonderful Life was made at all. It’s a miracle that it survived anonymity after being rejected and forgotten. It’s a bigger miracle that it has become the celebrated perennial Christmas classic that it’s regarded as today. It took over 25 years of being abandoned, then accidentally lapsing copyright renewal and entering the public domain, in order for it to finally be discovered, appreciated, and revered.
It truly is a miracle movie, but it is one that needs to be watched and understood in the proper light and context. If we do not follow Christ — if we do not directly find the inspiration of real change within ourselves to be more like Peter and George Bailey in our dealings with our fellow men, and in the sharing and sacrificing of our wealth — we will be damned. I’m not being excessive, I really mean it: we – will – be – damned.
The next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life, enjoy the silly Capra-isms that make it endearing, but please see the film for what it really is: a warning of how much we are to sacrifice for Christ and His kingdom in serving our fellow men, whether or not they will ever thank us for it, or come to our rescue in our darkest hour. If we do not truly take this to heart, our post-mortality Hell will not be unlike George’s terrifying and deeply sobering alternate universe in which he never existed. If we are not like unto Peter and George — who are perfectly honest, forthright, refuse to excessively profit, and dedicate and sacrifice all that they have to the care and support of their neighbors and fellow men — what damn good is our existence right now? Will the hole we leave when we cease existing actually be noticed, be felt, by anyone?
#2 — Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) (Japan, 1988, dir: Isao Takahata, from Studio Ghibli)
“Why do fireflies have to die so soon?”
I don’t even know where to begin with Grave of the Fireflies. I’ve started and deleted and restarted writing this summary several times now.
Never before has any film gripped me so deeply — has so thoroughly overcome me and reverberated inside my soul, penetrating and echoing throughout the whole of who I am — as this film.
Just thinking about the soundtrack immediately sobers me up and causes me to begin to weep.
Tokyo, 1945. A twelve year old boy, Seita, and his five year old sister, Setsuko, quickly react to air raid sirens. Seita puts on his shoes, gets Setsuko onto his back, and checks on his mother. She urges them to get to the shelter while she gets medicine and some critical items. As Seita runs out the door, he looks up and sees hundreds of little canisters dropping from American bombers. He and his little sister cover their eyes and ears as several land nearby. But they don’t explode. They just sit there, with a small flame spewing out of them. They are canisters of oil, slowly and steadily burning. Everything is still, quiet, and peaceful for a moment. Then the neighbor’s house catches fire and starts burning rapidly. Another house nearby immediately starts bursting into flames. Seita takes off with Setsuko as fast as he can run.
Within a few minutes, a large section of Tokyo is in complete bedlam. Hordes of panicking citizens run for the hills and shelters. The sky turns black and orange from the unstoppable fires consuming everything. Seita and Setsuko make it to safety. Seita collapses with exhaustion and catches his breath, Setsuko clings desperately to his clothes, quivering in terror.
Seita later discovers that his mother has third degree burns over most of her body. She dies soon after — unable to look at, speak to, or respond to her son. Seita is given a box of her cremated ashes. He doesn’t tell Setsuko that mommy’s dead, or what’s really in the box. Their father is a commander in the Japanese navy; no message from him, no word on when he will return. They are at a loss of what to do, where to go, and how to survive.
Thus begins the true story of the real Seita and Setsuko — not “based on a true story”, it is a true story. This film is an adaption of Seita’s autobiographical account of his life, Grave of the Fireflies — which is as well-known and widespread among the Japanese (and most Asian nations) as The Diary of Anne Frank is in the west.
The way this film affects me is ineffable — mere words are inadequate. You join Seita and Setsuko on every desperate, terrifying, downtrodden moment of their predicament. The only respite from ever-present hunger and suffering are the handful of wondrous moments that only children can appreciate, even as the world becomes increasingly calloused all around them:
- capturing fireflies at night in a field of grass
- releasing the fireflies within their mosquito-net canopy, making it appear as though like they are surrounded by their own personal starlight constellations
- filling Setsuko’s fruit candy tin full of water and drinking it, tasting the residue of all of the candy flavors at once
- Setsuko collecting buttons of various sizes, pieces of colorful fabric, and curious pebbles — treating them as though they’re valuable treasure
- taking sticks and balls of mud, and pretending that they are chopsticks and balls of rice — desperately trying to re-live “home” — trying to forget for just a moment that home and parents are irrevocably gone.
As a father of two, it becomes all the more unbearable to watch as the two children suffer from severe malnutrition, while Japanese citizens become more and more heartless towards the plights of the desperate, even the young children.
After months of barely surviving, Seita and Setsuko walk down the street of an upper-middle class neighborhood that has been spared destruction by the war machine. They see three teen girls rush into a home and embrace their mother. They watch through the open windows as the mother puts a record on the phonograph: a soothing Japanese rendition of the song There’s No Place Like Home. As the song plays on, the director cuts to tranquil scenes of the swampy squalor where Seita and Setsuko have been reduced to surviving at.
Even in typing this summary, as I recollect these scenes and music, I can’t stop myself from weeping. My face is contorted; the tears won’t stop flowing.
There is no happy ending for Seita and Setsuko. They die. First, Setsuko from slow, merciless starvation. Then Seita from having abandoned all hope and any will to live. He refuses to eat. He dies, slumping onto the cold tiled floor of a train station — his sister’s name escaping his lips along with his death rattle. He’s merely one among other destitute Japanese citizens littering the walls and columns of this train station, who will also pass away shortly. (It’s the only part of the story that’s untrue: Seita lived. He wanted to die, but he lived — if only to tell the story of his beloved five year old sister, Setsuko.)
As a subway worker finds Seita’s body, he sees that he is clutching a little tin candy container — Setsuko’s most prized possession. He picks up the container and throws it out into a grassy field. The container pops open upon impact, and some of Setsuko’s cremated remains (which Seita had put into the canister) spill out onto the ground. Fireflies take flight from blades of grass, and Setsuko’s spirit appears: healthy, joyful, and innocent. She sees Seita’s dead body in the station, and is about to rush to him, but a hand gently touches her shoulder. Seita’s spirit is there next to her, and she embraces him. Together they walk through the field and watch the fireflies sparkle in the night.
It wasn’t until after I watched Grave of the Fireflies that I began to understand these scriptures:
“[A]nd Enoch was high and lifted up, even in the bosom of the Father, and of the Son of Man…
“And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?… How is it that thou canst weep[?]…
“The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;… [I have] given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood…. [A]nd the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:24-37)
For me, Grave of the Fireflies is among the most incredible and important films ever made. It is a movie that every single person should watch at least once in their life. It is a litmus test of a movie: if it does not cause the viewer to yearn to be more compassionate, to seek to be more outreaching, and make greater sacrifices towards others in need (especially damaged and suffering children), then that person is in the gall of bitterness, the bonds of iniquity, has a stone for a heart, and is quite possibly beyond God’s redemption.
Those who read all this and think, “Wow, OK. Won’t be watching that one. Sad movies make me uncomfortable, especially ones that require me to think. I’d rather deteriorate my intelligence for two hours by watching Transformers 4 instead,” please, do me a favor: leave my blog and never return. However, on the other hand, to those who seek to explore under-appreciated cinematic treasure, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you watch the greatest films of Studio Ghibli. As wondrous and timeless as most of their films are, Grave of the Fireflies is their pinnacle work in my opinion.
#1 — The Thin Red Line (1998, dir: Terrence Malick)
“Are you righteous? Kind? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?”
Back in the summer of 1998, Steven Spielberg released what has come to be regarded as one of the greatest war movies ever made: Saving Private Ryan. Only a handful of months later, another World War II themed film was released: The Thin Red Line. Still having World War II on the mind, quite a few fans of Saving Private Ryan also went to watch The Thin Red Line. They were expecting a film like Saving Private Ryan, except perhaps about the American armed forces’ struggle in the Pacific. They were not the least bit prepared for what they were about to watch; they had no idea how violently their expectations would be dashed. The degree to which they loved Saving Private Ryan was typically the degree to which they despised The Thin Red Line. Most found it aggravating, confusing, and insufferably boring. A fair portion outspokenly, vehemently hated it to the point where they declared it as “the worst movie ever made!”
However, there were a minority of viewers that didn’t judge the movie based on their expectations, who watched and absorbed the movie for what it was, not what they wanted it to be. It was this small group of individuals — who had the patience, the insight, the openness, the curiosity, and the ability to perceive — that quickly came to realize that what they were watching was not only fascinatingly unique and awe-inspiring, it was also a vastly superior, more intelligent, and a far more rewarding film than Saving Private Ryan.
The Thin Red Line is not a war movie. In fact, it’s not even a movie at all. It’s a visual essay on the essence of conflict: both in the natural world and subsequently in the affairs of mankind. It’s a poetic dissertation.
The setting in which the topic is explored is through the events of various battles and campaigns that occurred at Guadalcanal during World War II. From the introductory imagery to the final shots of the film, the viewer is transported on a gentle visual roller-coaster — as if one is riding on a marvelously insightful poem that is communicated through sight and sound instead of the written word.
The entire film plays out as though sympathetic angels that witness human history unfold had some movie cameras, and they focused them at whatever they found most fascinating, important, and curious at sundry times during those several months, while also recording the inner-most thoughts and desires of the hearts of the soldiers they filmed, both live and dead.
The overall effect of this film on me is as ineffable as anything I’ve ever experienced in the entire realm of cinema. Truly there has never been a film like it before or since. It is a perfectly unique gem; unequaled and borderline flawless.
I really mean it when I say that The Thin Red Line is ineffable — I honestly have no further words capable of describing it. I cannot put into words why you should soberly — and even prayerfully — set aside an uninterrupted three hour block and reverently watch this film; then ponder everything over the next two weeks. The only thing I can do to communicate how strongly I recommend this film is to reiterate that it is my #1 favorite film of all time.
Be aware, this movie is NOT for the following kinds of people:
- people who get nothing out of poetry or art, or who roll their eyes at such
- people who aren’t creative, curious, or enjoy pondering abstract concepts
- people who go batshit with frustration whenever they watch movies that don’t stick to predictable formulas, don’t coddle viewers and treat them condescendingly, don’t spell everything out with clear-cut story telling, and don’t contain a strictly-linear narrative
- people who are adverse to using their brain and want the movie to do all their thinking and opinion-forming for them
- people who think of movies as something that can (and should) only provide entertainment: “if it don’t titillate me, stroke my ego, or deliver two hours of eye candy, it ain’t gettin’ my hard-earned munny”
- people who say that their favorite movie director is either Steven Spielberg or George Lucas (mostly because they don’t actually know the names of any other directors)
(Actually, come to think of it, none of the movies on my list would appeal to these kinds of people — except maybe Batman Begins or The Lego Movie, but for all the wrong reasons.)
I really wish I can do The Thin Red Line justice in a human-language summary, but I can’t. I’m reminded of the prophet Lehi, after being overwhelmed with an extensive waking vision, wherein he witnessed the whole of eternity and the endless works of God, he summarizes it all with: “I saw and heard much.” What’s Lehi communicating? “You’ve got to experience it for yourself. Nothing I say can explain the hundredth part of any of it, and will probably only serve to create a false representation of what it is.”
That’s how I feel about this film.
The director, Terrence Malick, made two lauded films in the 1970’s, then effectively disappeared from film making altogether. Twenty years later, he presented The Thin Red Line. I can’t help but imagine that he spent a great deal of those 20 years thinking about, developing, and perfecting this project in his mind before he even turned on a camera.
Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) (Japan, 2001, dir: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, distributed by Disney)
Omohide Poro Poro (Only Yesterday) (Japan, 1991, dir: Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli, Disney will release English version this year)
Toy Story (1995, dir: John Lasseter)
The Elephant Man (1980, dir: David Lynch)
Brazil (1985, dir: Terry Gilliam)
The General (1926, Buster Keaton)
The Princess Bride (1987, dir: Rob Reiner)
Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) (France, 1959, dir: François Truffaut)
Blade Runner (1982, dir: Ridley Scott)
12 Angry Men (1957, dir: Sidney Lumet)
Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth) (Alternate title: Every Child Is Special) (India, 2007, dir: Aamir Khan)
Inception (2010, dir: Christopher Nolan)
Coraline (2009, dir: Henry Selick)
Citizen Kane (1941, dir: Orson Welles)
Gran Torino (2008, dir: Clint Eastwood)
The Green Mile (1999, dir: Frank Darabont)
Say Anything (1989, dir: Cameron Crowe)
The Passion of the Christ (2004, dir: Mel Gibson)
The Incredibles (2004, dir: Brad Bird)
Invitation to Share
While I am adequately educated and experienced in analyzing films, I am in no way a superior authority on what is good or bad, quality or shoddy, meritorious or deserving of derision. I’d welcome everyone’s input on their favorite films in the comments, and please share why those films are valued so highly to you. I also welcome criticism of my choices and tastes. (I can take what I dish out, with appreciation — I always give credit where credit is due.) If you absolutely love musicals, feel free to let me have it — but please backup all points and opinions with thoughtful analysis.
Oh, and for the record, I love Pixar’s Wall-E. Not only is it both brilliant and moving, but by incorporating the mediocrity of Hello Dolly it manages to produce something that is greater, deeper, and more universal. Wall-E would not have been nearly as emotive and endearing without those cheesy songs from Hello Dolly. That is the stuff of genius.