I believe that regardless of what creative medium that people work in, everyone can learn a lot and gain creative inspiration from just about any other art form. Visual artists can find inspiration in music, musicians can find inspiration in films, film directors can find inspiration in games, etc. This principle, along with the fact that movies are inherently entertaining, has encouraged me to spend more time researching highly rated films and making an effort to watch new movies more regularly. I admire the creativity and level of effort that goes into filmmaking, and it is an artistic medium that combines many other genres of art; a trait that I also find fascinating about the medium of digital games. But that is enough preface, here are my favorite movies I have seen since a year ago (in alphabetical order):
As I look at my highest rated movies, it is no mystery that I enjoy the genre of science fiction. There is something really interesting about taking a premise that is “fictional,” but well-explained enough to be plausible, and then exploring “what would happen if it actually occurred?” Arrival has an excellent atmosphere throughout, and maintains a high level of mystery and unknown as the protagonists make an effort to communicate across an intergalactic language barrier. Some of my favorite movies of all time leave my mind churning on the resolution long after the credits roll, and for me, this was one of those movies.
The original trilogy of Bourne movies (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum) consists of an enjoyable action-spy narrative, with a premise (a skilled spy doesn’t remember who he is) that leads to some naturally interesting situations in the plot. While I enjoyed the first two films, The Bourne Ultimatum really surprised me in being my favorite of the bunch. This is honestly impressive, as the novelty of the premise had already worn down after seeing the first two installations. Ultimately (no pun intended), the movie felt like it had been planned all along, as opposed to many sequels that are planned after the success of the first movie.
I had been aware of this movie and its highly-rated status for a while, and all I had ever heard from people was how weird it was. And I admit, it is certainly strange. That said, I actually really enjoyed it. The premise was really original, the execution was really creative, and the style of storytelling made the resolution satisfying. I mentioned that I like the “what if” scenarios posed by science fiction, and this film is similar as it asks what would happen if there was a procedure that allowed someone to remove all memories of another person from their mind. It certainly isn’t a movie that everyone will like, but if you find yourself gravitating towards the weird end of the spectrum in movies or any other art medium, I think it is definitely worth looking into.
Before seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel, I hadn’t heard of director Wes Anderson or seen any of his films. I was completely caught off guard by the style and creativity of the movie, and absolutely loved it. I quickly resolved that I would watch the rest of his movies, and have since watched several others. I have enjoyed every one so far, but The Grand Budapest Hotel still stands at the top as my favorite. There is so much charm in the style that almost feels like a fairy tale for adults, with so much interest emerging organically out of interesting and well-developed characters. The filming is so distinct and consistent across all of Wes’s films, and it is really refreshingly different from your average modern movie. The Grand Budapest Hotel was probably my favorite find of the year, simply because it introduced me to a creative director that I plan to follow from now on.
Any time I see a highly rated movie with Tom Hanks, I can count on it being a great story. Forrest Gump still holds my spot of favorite Hanks performance, but The Green Mile is not far behind as a film that keeps you captivated the whole time. The subject matter is certainly darker with almost the entire movie taking place on death row, but the movie is carried by its strong characters. By the end of the film, there are characters that you feel intense sympathy for, and there are characters towards which you have developed an intense hatred. It is great storytelling that makes those feelings possible.
While I appreciate musicals, I don’t often find myself drawn to go out of my way to see them, nor would I expect a musical to be one of my favorite movies. But for me, La La Land hit the sweet spot with a combination of a really relatable plot line (chasing your creative dreams and the tradeoffs that are inevitable with it), awesome music (Justin Horowitz is killing it with the soundtrack for Whiplash and now this), and outstanding acting. The whole package is so well put together, and I found myself enjoying the soundtrack long after seeing the film. Director Damien Chazelle has really exploded onto the scene in the last few years, and I am really excited to see what the young talent has in store with his future projects.
The story of an astronaut stranded on Mars is interesting in and of itself, but what really elevates The Martian is how it makes the storyline more believable by really backing it with scientific explanation. Yes, it definitely still has the Hollywood touch, but it is fascinating to think about how someone might be able to survive in such a scenario against all odds. The space theme adds in a lot of interesting domain-specific problems and situations (much like Interstellar, one of my favorite films of all time), and the inclusion of unanticipated problems and plans backfiring keeps it feeling more real (almost reminiscent of Apollo 13). It doesn’t have the twist that often boosts a movie into my highest ranks, but it is still certainly an enjoyable ride.
Leonardo DiCaprio has definitely established himself as one of my favorite actors (i.e. Inception and Shutter Island), and he finally nabbed that elusive Oscar with his performance as The Revenant. A thrilling and brutal survival story, it had me not only thinking about the true story on which the movie is based, but also what life was like in general during the early 1800s. The film is full of breathtaking shots of the wild frontier, and it is quite fascinating to research the making of the movie, and how all of the actors and crew worked out in the elements to achieve the realistic takes. The violence can be a little heavy, but sometimes a good survival story (see The Martian, above) just hits the spot.
Another classic Tom Hanks performance that I finally got around to seeing. Intense violence is not usually something that elevates a movie for me, but Saving Private Ryan manages to package it with a compelling story, and the violence feels very justified given the subject matter, as opposed to extraneous and unnecessary as it can sometimes be in movies. The movie wastes no time jumping into the action with a lengthy portrayal of the D-Day landings. It is the kind of scene that really sticks with you and makes the events feel a lot more real than when you read it in a history book. I am not usually drawn towards pure war films (though I am excited about Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s new project, but that has more to do with the director than the subject matter), but sometimes the story and presentation are strong enough to still hoist it into my top ranked films.
This movie had been on my list to see for years after recommendations from multiple friends. Finally got around to watching it, and found it to be a very gripping story that uses a brilliant storytelling technique. Having an Indian kid from the slums answer questions correctly on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and then flash back to explain why he did in fact know the answers, is a really creative and effective way of presenting a narrative. Some of the darker and intense aspects of the film really move it into thriller territory, and I found myself metaphorically on the edge of my seat from beginning to end.
I find it interesting how in American movie culture, animated films are almost exclusively target the demographic of kids, whereas in Asian culture and the world of anime, the animated medium doesn’t carry that kind of age-based restriction. Spirited Away probably falls somewhere in between children and adults as its intended audience, and I think the enjoyment of it has less to do with age and more to do with personal preference. What I love about it, is that the movie oozes creativity. The characters and plot keep things unpredictable and entertaining from beginning to end. Many people will be weirded out by a lot of what seems out of left field, but I find it inspiring as it exemplifies how as a creative person, you can literally do anything! Nothing is keeping you from breaking the rules, and that is what makes creative endeavors endlessly explorable, and quite simply, awesome.
One of the most interesting documentaries I have seen, Tim’s Vermeer follows the path of an inventor that is trying to replicate the detailed realism of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer through use of scientific techniques and inventions as opposed to traditional artistic skill. His efforts make you rethink how we view famous artists, and raise questions around what makes art “art”. Is there such thing as “cheating” in art if you are able to produce the intended end product? Does the use of certain tools or techniques make some art “less” than others that are produced by relying only on purely human skills? Is inventing technology to aid creation of art any less of a human skill than working without that technology? Besides being a fascinating documentary about Tim’s journey, I really enjoyed the deeper questions about art that the documentary provoked.
Finally, the list is rounded out with Damien Chazelle’s (see La La Land, above) other impressive music-centric feature film. The common thread in his movies of the balance between art and life is one that really jives with me, and once again, Whiplash combines that with an outstanding soundtrack and great acting. It raises great questions around where the line is in pushing students (or yourself) creatively. Is abusive behavior justified if it pushes an artist to create a remarkable work of art that would not have otherwise come into existence? Our society elevates the great art of history to a god-like status, what tradeoffs are worth whether those works are created versus never existing at all? It is probably obvious that I enjoy movies that make me think; combine that with killer music and a connection to the life of an artist, and it is unlikely it will miss the mark.
It is fun to reflect on the movies that I have enjoyed the most, and take time to think about what it is that I like about them so much. Each movie listed here has, whether I realize it or not, shaped my creative identity and what I have to pull from in my own work. It is cool to see the medium of film being pushed in so many different ways, and I look forward to another year of searching for the gems that resonate with me.