This post started as my “top ten” greatest movies list, but I would have had to leave out too many great movies to keep it at ten, so it became my “top twenty,” then “twenty-five,” and finally “thirty.” It was still painful to leave out movies like Field of Dreams, Raging Bull, The Quiet Man, Apocalypse Now, The Mission, Spiderman (the first and best! Go Toby!), A Few Good Men, Driving Miss Daisy, Citizen Kane, and the two movies from my friends at “Metanoia Films,” Little Boy, and Bella. And there are a host of other movies that it was hard to keep out of my list of 30. But I did eventually have to draw a line.
In order to trim it down to 30, I had to take out all of the musicals (except “The Sound of Music,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandee” – just couldn’t leave those out), and all of the Christmas movies (except “It’s a Wonderful Life,” my #1). I will make two separate lists of my favorite musicals and my favorite Christmas movies in future posts.
I also had to leave out some really good kids’ movies, so I will make a top ten list for that category too in the future.
But at any rate, here we go! In this post, I will present my top 10. In my next post, I will give you #11 through 20. And then #21 through 30.
So Let’s get started with my #1 through 10.
#1: It’s a Wonderful Life:
This 1946 Frank Capra classic is beyond beautiful. And if you have not seen it – I must inform you – you are in sin! It’s the story of the really “wonderful life” of George Bailey, played masterfully by Jimmy Stewart, a man who is convinced his life is a failure, which leads him to the point of ending it all on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1945, just after the end of WWII, in fictional “Bedford Falls,” New York. Things change dramatically when he gets a visit from his guardian angel, “Angel-Second-Class Clarence Oddbody,” who shows him just how wonderful his life truly is by showing him what the world would have been like without him.
The cast is superb and includes Jimmy Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (George’s wife, Mary), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Angel 2nd Class Clarence, or as the good angel himself said it, “Clarence Oddbody, A.S. 2”), and a host of Hollywood’s very best character actors of years long past. Get ready for a roller coaster ride covering the gamut of emotions. And if you don’t cry during this movie … well … I will pray for you!
The entire movie is set as an answer to the prayers of an entire town praying for our lovable main character George Bailey out of concern for him because of some dramatic turns for the worse in his life. Key players in George’s life, including his wife, children, and friends, are heard in heaven as they pray for their dear husband, father, and friend, George. In response to their prayers, Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to both save George and earn his angel’s wings in the process. But in order to prepare for the task, Senior Angel Joseph gives him an inner locution, movie style, of George’s entire life beginning in 1919 when George “was just 12-years old.”
In this scene we first get a sense of George’s selfless character we will grow to love when he saves his “kid-brother Harry” who falls through the ice of a frozen pond. George risks his own life to save his brother and loses his hearing in his left ear as a result.
Then we see George, again as a boy, working after school at “Gower’s Drug Store” for “old man Gower” himself (played by H.B. Warner). George finds a telegram on the counter informing Mr. Gower of the loss of his son, Robert, who had just recently died of influenza. George finds Gower drunk and in mourning in the back of the drugstore, but he also discovers that Mr. Gower had accidentally added poison to a prescription intended for a child suffering from diptheria. Uncertain if he should approach Mr. Gower, or just what to do at all, because of Mr. Gower’s drunken condition, young George decides he would not deliver the drugs to the customer at all.
After all, how could he, right?
When Gower receives a call from the client asking why the much-needed medicine for his child was delayed, Mr. Gower is immediately enraged. And in his drunken stupor he even slaps George on his bad ear so violently that it causes it to bleed. But when George makes known to Mr. Gower what would have been a deadly mistake if he had delivered the pills, Gower turns from enraged to grateful in an instant and George vows never to tell a soul of the incident. That little scene sums up George Bailey’s character he will carry with him and develop through all of the events of his life. George’s is a life lived in love, “not considering [his] own interests” (I Cor. 13:5), but “willing the good of the other,” to quote St. Thomas Aquinas’s famous definition of love.
Moving forward we are transported in time to George’s little brother Harry Bailey’s graduation from high school in 1928. George had graduated high school four years earlier, but did not go to college in order to stay and help at the family business, built by the Patriarch of the family, George’s father, Peter Bailey (played by Samuel Hinds). The business is called the “Bailey Building and Loan,” and George worked there for those four years in order to save money for school. After Harry graduates from high school, the idea was anyway, Harry would stay on to help their father at the building and loan so George could go to college and fulfill his dream of becoming an architect and making his millions “building things,” as he would say. “Skyscrapers a mile high, bridges a mile long…”
On graduation night for Harry, George decides to attend the school dance where we are introduced to the adult version of the young woman who would become the love of George’s life, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has had a crush on George from the time they were kids (we were introduced to her earlier in a charming little scene that is one of about two hundred reasons why everyone must see this movie!). This a truly beautiful scene where the flame between the two of them is first ignited, but is interrupted abruptly by news that George’s father had had a stroke. George’s father, Peter Bailey, would die that very night.
Now everything changes.
Because of this turn of events George gives up his travel plans he had made for the summer to “see the world” (another of George’s dreams he would offer up on the altar of sacrifice) in order to help Uncle Billy – his father’s brother and right hand man at the building and loan – in order to sort out what the family was going to do with the business. Not only does George help, but he takes charge over and above hapless Uncle Billy, leading the board of directors to vote to make George the Executive Director in his father’s place.
Of course, George doesn’t want to accept. What about his dream, remember? He wanted to go to school, become a builder, etc. He wants to get out of Bedford Falls to pursue that dream! He first tries to turn the offer down point blank. But you probably guessed it. George gives up his plans to go to school as the first leg of fulfilling his dreams in order to help out the family, the business, as well as the town, that truly does need what George would call this “measly one-horse institution if only to have some place to come to other than crawling to Potter” (more on that later!)!
Not only does George give up his dream once again, but he even gives his school money that he had saved over four years to his brother Harry who goes to college and becomes a football star while George stays home and works the business for another four years. The idea was George would stay behind until Harry graduates from college, then Harry would take over the business so George could finally go to college, and…
Another four years goes by, and George has not even begun to fulfill his dreams.
When the four years goes by and George is excited that his brother is coming home, little brother Harry has a surprise. He got married while away at school without telling the family and his wife’s father offered him a very good job at a glass factory up in Buffalo!
Once again, everything changes.
Predictably, but painfully nonetheless, George makes another sacrifice. He gives up his dream, yet again, so that Harry can fulfill his and take the job in Buffalo. In a word, there would be no college for George. No travel. No becoming the successful builder. He seems doomed to remain at the building and loan, pinching pennies in order to keep this small family business afloat.
George’s life is becoming one cross after another.
Just as George is really hitting bottom now seeing his brother go off married, leaving George to tend the store, so to speak, enter Mary Hatch, who becomes Mary Bailey. In one of the most beautiful and romantic scenes in motion picture history (you have to see it, I’m not tellin’), George and Mary come together and end up getting married.
What is truly amazing about Mary is how Capra masterfully weaves the lives of George and Mary together in love, and, so often, in and through pain. The cross is a central theme throughout this wonderful story. Here’s just a hint of what I am talking about for the next time you watch the movie. From the time we are introduced to Mary as a little girl, we see her heart of love as a mirror image of George’s heart.
They are truly made for each other.
When young George gets his ears slapped back by Mr. Gower, Mary is present, and the camera cuts to her just as we hear the slapping sounds of George being pommeled. Mary grimaces in pain with every slap. She seems to feel George’s pain as much or more than George does. Why? Because she loves!
This theme will develop throughout the story, but one cannot help but see how both Mary and George have an enormous capacity to hurt for others while never thinking of themselves. They truly are all about the “other.” More on that below!
After a truly wonderful wedding (I find it incredible how Capra can communicate that fact without our having actually viewed even a second of the actual wedding), right from the start of their marriage, the sacrifices begin, but not only for George, but Mary as well.
In yet another among many truly remarkable and timeless scenes, we see how George and Mary are truly “one flesh” when it comes to thinking of others and living a life of sacrifice. On their way to leave town for their honeymoon, the newlywed couple witnesses a run on the bank that causes both the bank to recall the Bailey business loan and their own building and loan members to panic, demanding all of their money from the building and loan immediately. As a mob, they storm the gates, and of course, the building and loan simply does not have enough money to meet the demand.
George attempts to calm the mob and reason with them, but it becomes obvious he’s losing them, and that he’s about to lose his business. But then, at the height of panic, and where there seems to be no hope, Mary steps in! (Can we see a little image here of the Blessed Mother, folks?) Mary Bailey saves the day with her own idea to give up the couple’s hard-earned honeymoon money ($2,000 – a substantial amount of money in those years!) in order to help the needy members of the building and loan without breaking the building and loan. George immediately concurs, of course, without the slightest hesitation.
Yes, folks, George and Mary Bailey basically gave up their honeymoon and all their money in sacrifice in order to lend financial support to the building and loan and their friends in need. Without a thought of how or if they could ever even think of recouping their losses, their minds were singularly focused on helping those that they love through a very real and daunting crisis.
Over time George establishes “Bailey Park,” a development of small houses financed by loans from the Bailey Building and Loan, which allows people to own their own homes rather than having to pay rent to live in evil Mr. Potter’s overpriced slums. Potter, frustrated at losing control of the housing market, attempts to lure George into becoming his assistant. And George is momentarily tempted by what would have amounted to a tenfold increase in salary, but rejects the offer to work with the evil Potter. when he comes to his senses. He simply cannot give in to the devil, no matter how much money he is offered.
Potter is furious! He thought he could eliminate his only obstacle to complete control of Bedford Falls by basically paying him off. But George is here revealed to be not only a man who constantly thinks of others. He’s also a man of what Mr. Potter would later and mockingly refer as “high ideals,” even when those “ideals” are not always convenient to hold.
Think we could use a little of that nowadays, folks? Hmmmmmmm…
During World War II, George is discovered to be ineligible for service in the military – “4F” – because of his bad ear. Harry becomes a Navy pilot and shoots down 15 enemy planes, one of which was attempting to crash into a transport filled with American soldiers. For his bravery, he is awarded the Medal of Honor. And as a result, on Christmas Eve morning 1945, the town prepares a hero’s welcome for Harry. A truly glorious time. But yet, this high time would set the stage for everything in George’s life to seemingly begin to unravel.
As the town prepares for Harry’s homecoming, Uncle Billy happily makes his way through the snow to Potter’s bank to deposit $8,000 for the building and loan. (That $8,000 would be worth well over $100,000, or more, in 2017 dollars) . Unable, or perhaps unwilling to be more accurate, to overcome the temptation to gloat, Uncle Billy decides to taunt Mr. Potter, taking Potter’s newspaper out of his own hands and bragging about Harry being on the front page of that paper as a hero. Potter angrily grabs the newspaper back but then discovers the $8k Uncle Billy was planning to deposit into the bank to be inside of the paper. Uncle Billy had unintentionally tucked the envelope containing the money into the paper before handing it back to Potter. Upon seeing the money, Potter realizes the potential scandal that would ensue if he simply keeps (steals!) and hides the money. This could lead to both George and the building and loan’s downfall. The immoral Mr. Potter immediately and predictably seizes the moment and steals the money.
After realizing the money for the deposit is gone, Uncle Billy is at a complete loss. He frantically searches for it to no avail.
To make things even worse, it just so happens that the bank examiner was scheduled to arrive that very morning, Christmas Eve, in order to review the building and loan’s records before the Christmas season would begin. Upon his arrival Uncle Billy tries to stall for time, but he cannot hide the truth for long. George eventually approaches Uncle Billy for the deposit receipts to present to the bank examiner when Uncle Billy reveals the truth. George and Uncle Billy try desperately to find the lost money, but once again, it is to no avail.
Now panic sets in! And understandably so!
George berates his uncle for not only endangering the building and loan, but now there’s the prospect of scandal, or even prison, if they cannot account for such an enormous sum of the shareholders money. Panicked, George doesn’t know what to do. He leaves Uncle Billy and the bank examiner behind and goes home, knowing it would only be a short time before he would be hearing from the authorities in order to explain the missing money.
He simply does not know what to do.
He can’t bring himself to tell his wife and send her into a panic, but at the same time, the crisis causes him to do what would normally be unthinkable for George Bailey. He takes out his frustration on his family, losing his temper and irrationally lashing out at the lot of them. He almost immediately composes himself and apologizes to his wife and children, but once again, he simply does not know what to do. So he leaves out into the cold not knowing where to go or what to do.
No securities, no stocks, no bonds. Nothin’ but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. And you expect me to loan you 8k?
Then after laughing at and mocking George in his dour and pain, Potter goes on to say:
You’re worth more dead than alive.
And there was much more than just this. Potter just pummels George Bailey bringing to my mind the image of the whips across the body of our Lord. The sinner pommels the saint and all we can do is sit by and watch in our own pain at the sight. The pommeling came in the forms of insults like, “You come in here like a beggar on your hands in knees begging for help… You used to be so cocky…” And on and on he goes.
But it would be that one statement – one line – straight from the pit of Hell from Potter’s detestable lips, that would be the most evil of all, yet out of which God would ultimately bring the greatest good (do we have a crucifix allusion here?) that we must focus on now. “You’re worth more dead than alive.” And we know, by the way, from George’s facial expression at the instant Potter utters these words (masterfully acted by Jimmy Stewart) that it was precisely here that the thought was first placed in George’s mind that in order to save his family and friends from their certain financial demise, there was only one answer. George had to commit suicide so that his family would collect what would be the saving grace of the $15k from his life insurance policy.
As George hurries out of Potter’s office to actualize what he thought to be the only answer, Potter phones the police to have George arrested and brought up on charges.
George ends up heading first to his friend “Martini’s” local pub and drinking himself into a stupor before he leaves and heads to a nearby bridge to do what he always did. He was going to give himself up in sacrifice in order to save his family, in the only way he could think at the moment. He would dive off of a bridge to an icy river and to his certain death.
It is at this point that the film’s narrative catches up to the time of the opening scene. And now enters “Clarence.” Just before George has worked up enough courage to dive off of the bridge into the icy waters beneath, out of nowhere, Clarence jumps into the river before George could, causing selfless George to once again forget about all of his own troubles, to do what George Bailey always does. He dives into those frigid waters to rescue Clarence.
After “saving” Clarence the two end up in the booth of a toll-taker on the bridge and here we have some of the best comedic aspects to this wonderful film. The conversation very quickly leads, however, to Clarence plainly revealing his identity as George’s guardian angel and the fact that he had come to help George, but there were two problems.
Clarence would get his answer when, during their conversation, George, in the bowels of despair, declares he wishes he had never been born. Clarence then gets the idea, that would be approved later by “Senior Angel Joseph,” of just how he is going to help George. He decides to grant George his wish and show George an alternate timeline in which he never existed.
What a story it becomes! Over time, George will discover that the entire town has been changed – and for the worse – in manifold ways because he was not there to bring about so much good that he had taken for granted. Bedford Falls is named Pottersville because he was not there to stop Potter from taking over not only the housing industry in town, but virtually the entire town. Without the influence of George Bailey this wonderful small town and family friendly community has become a corrupt city, filled with violence and vice.
Mr. Gower, George discovers to his dismay, has recently been released from prison for manslaughter because George was not there to stop him from putting poison in the pills we mentioned before. The Building and Loan has long since closed down and Uncle Billy was institutionalized as a result because George was not there to take over over and save it after Pa Bailey’s passing.
Even the wonderful and loving, “Ma Bailey,” is near-completely transformed. Her loving smile is no where to be seen. She lost her son, Harry, as a child, she lost her husband, and now Uncle Billy as well to insanity. And there is no George. She seems to left a bitter and lonely old woman.
Bailey Park, a wonderful neighborhood of small homes built by George and the Bailey Building and Loan don’t exist either. All that’s there where George had built all of those wonderful homes, each one breeding stories of love and life, is a cemetery. And it would be in that very cemetery where George would discover the grave of his brother Harry. Clarence informs George that all the soldiers Harry Bailey saved and for which he was rewarded the Medal of Honor died. Harry was not there to save them, because George was not there to save Harry.
And then there’s Mary.
Mary “Hatch” never married; she became an old maid. In fact, there is an incredibly dramatic scene here when George sees her and screams at her in panic saying, “I am your husband…”, she screams for the police, causing George to flee and the local policeman to give chase.
George, now convinced that Clarence is really his guardian angel, runs back to the bridge and begs for his life back; the alternate timeline changes back to the original reality. And George is ecstatic! He no longer really cares about whether or not he will have to go to jail, or come what may, concerning the $8k! He now knows what a “wonderful life” he truly has and he can’t wait to grab a hold of his wife and kids and hang on forever! George runs home elated!
But when George arrives home, again, expecting to be arrested, he is in for the surprise of his life! Well, maybe the second greatest surprise. You know, after having an angel appear to him and all…
Mary and Uncle Billy arrive home shortly after George does. George has just grabbed a hold of his children, kissing them, and thanking God for each one of these wonderful gifts from heaven, when his wife and uncle declare they have rallied an entire town of people whom George has touched and in various ways over the years. Uncle Billy exclaims, “So many friends! We scattered all over town collecting money… All we said was George is in trouble…” and that was all they had to say. The people of the town came from everywhere and donated multiple times more than enough to cover the missing $8,000 and for Potter’s warrant for George’s arrest to be null and void.
The final scene cannot be described with words, you really do have to see it to appreciate it, but one by one all of George’s many friends whom he has touched in various ways throughout his life, come bounding in the Bailey house to offer their own sacrificial gits of money, gold watches, and more, in order to help out their “good friend, George.”
Harry Bailey arrives having left a reception in his own honor as a medal of honor winner in order to come see his big brother George as soon as he got a telegram from Mary. He flew all the way in a snow storm because he simply must get back to see his big brother George. And when he arrives and finds that all is well and that the people of Bedford Falls had come to George’s aid, Harry Bailey toasts a toast in front of the throngs of admirers of George Bailey that says it all, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
I better stop now because no matter how much I write, I realize I’ve left so much out of this incredible movie that I did not even come close to doing it justice!
Oh, well. I suppose you are just going to have to watch it if you haven’t. I guarantee you that if you do, you will agree with me that this is the greatest movie ever made!
Casablanca was the winner of three Academy Awards in 1943 (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay). And in it, Humphrey Bogart gives his greatest performance (and that’s saying a lot!) as “Rick Blaine,” an American nightclub owner in Casablanca, Morocco, during WWII. As a former freedom fighter fighting against political oppression, an embittered Rick Blaine appears to be laying low in unoccupied French Morocco, just trying to run his business and stay out of politics until his old flame and source of his bitterness, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) shows up at his “gin joint” with her world-renowned-leader-of-the-resistance husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).
This masterpiece directed by Michael Curtiz was relased in January, 1943, starring Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), and a host of stars including Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt and more.
It’s really a love story that tells the story of two men, Rick Blaine and Victor Laszlo, in love with the same woman, Ilsa Lund, but in the context of a much larger drama of complex political and moral intrigue. Victor and Ilsa are leaders in the underground resistance movement fighting Hitler’s evil Nazi regime, and they desperately need Rick to help them in the fight. He won’t do it because of the bitterness in his heart toward Ilsa, we discover, that is ultimately based on a colossal misunderstanding.
If you haven’t seen it, I will not ruin it for you and write a book like I did for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Let me just say that all of the intrigue involved between Ilsa, Rick, and Victor comes to a completely unexpected end leading to one of the greatest lines in the history of movies when Rick says to Ilsa:
Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
In those words Rick offers up his true love for Ilsa, and his personal plans for future happiness, on the altar of sacrifice for the greater cause of defeating Facism and Hitler’s plan for world domination (Oops! I think I might have just ruined it!).
At any rate, this is a truly remarkable film, a near-perfect script, and acting off the charts. Another movie that is simply impossible not to see… at least on purpose!
#3 The Passion of the Christ
What can you say about this movie that in some ways is in a category all by itself? My wife and I watch this 2004 Mel Gibson masterpiece every Lent and it is a tremendous spiritual experience every year. It really does more than tell a story; it leads all who view it through to an experience of the passion of Jesus Christ accomplished historically on Holy Thursday and Good Friday like no other depiction in history.
When I first heard the movie was going to be dubbed with the actors speaking exclusively in the ancient languages of Aramaic and Latin, I thought that was crazy. “It will never work!” I thought.
Man, was I wrong!
Mel Gibson created a timeless and profoundly important work of art here that will be viewed for generations to come. Jim Caviezel and Maia Morgenstern play Jesus and Mary to perfection, while Hristo Shopov and Monica Bellucci were their equals playing Pilate and St. Mary Magdalene. In fact, this is one of those rare movies where there is no weak link when it comes to acting. And the cinematography, if it be possible, was even better than the acting!
#4 The Ten Commandments
I’m using the term “masterpiece” a lot here I know. And I will again, I’m sure. But the term certainly applies to Cecil B. De Mille’s 1956 classic, “The Ten Commandments.” It’s hard for me to believe this film only won a single Academy Award (for best special effects), though it was nominated for seven. Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, and John Derek played Moses, Rameses, and Joshua better than Moses, Rameses, and Joshua did! Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price made you hate the treasonous Dathan and evil “Baka” to a point approaching matter requisite for Confession! And the beautiful portrayals of Rameses’ wife, Nefreteri (Anne Baxter), Moses’ wife Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo), and Joshua’s love Lilia (Debra Paget) complete the package, adding three of the top ten or so most beautiful women to ever grace the screen in Hollywood.
Did these Hollywood beauties represent a little bit of Hollywood un-realism? Absolutely! But I’m not complaining! Elvis Presley called Debra Pagent “the most beautiful woman in the world.” I would say she was neck and neck with Rita Hayworth! And Anne Baxter and Yvonne De Carlo? Wow!
But seriously, Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner in particular perform two of the greatest performances ever on the silver screen and make this biblical story come alive. Incredibly powerful and inspiring. This is one of those movies that is truly worthy of a yearly viewing. At the Staples’s household, we watch it every Easter Season.
Let’s see, can we find another word other than “masterpiece?” How about “brilliant?” This 1995 historical drama war epic was based on the historical uprising of the Scottish against the British Empire under King Edward I (Edward McGoohan), led by the Scottish hero and icon William Wallace (played to perfection by Mel Gibson). It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won five (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, and Best Sound).
The fact that Mel Gibson did not win Best Actor is maddening!
Though, as is the case with many Mel Gibson films, the violence portrayed is over-the-top and unnecessarily graphic at times, the story is truly wonderfully told and compelling. The heroism of William Wallace and the Scots inspired by him is intoxicating. And the addition of the stories within the story of the upbringing and youth of Wallace adds tremendously to the story overall. For example, we learn of Wallace that his father, played by Sean Lawlor, and his brother, played by Sandy Nelson, were killed when he was just a youth. He was then raised by his paternal Uncle Argyle, who not only taught him to fight and farm like a man to be sure, but he also taught him great works of literature, the Bible, and multiple languages.
The many aspects of Gibson’s genius in movie making is awe-inspiring. One way this is consistently seen is in character development. In the case of Braveheart, you not only get to know William Wallace and grow with him from his childhood, but you also get to know and grow to love his wife Murron (Catherine McCormack), whom he knew and loved as a youth, and who became his wife years later. You get to know her heart as well. So when Murron is brutally murdered for refusing the advances of a British soldier, you feel Wallace’s pain and outrage. In the script this horrid act gives birth to an even greater and more intense determination in Wallace to free his people from the clutches of this monstrous British Empire. But for me, it brought added, let’s say a little bit of, vengeance (perhaps a lot?) to the fore on top of the already just sense of outrage that had been built in me for the obvious evils of the dark British Empire!
All of this and more adds to the intrigue of Wallace leading a ragtag lot of underdogs against the undefeatable British armies and defeating them, ultimately, not just through Wallace’s life and military brilliance, but ultimately, and in Christ-like fashion, through his death.
Did I say, “brilliant?”
6. Gone With the Wind
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh star in this epic-historical romance that was adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel of the same name. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War from the perspective of the South, it is refreshing to see a more positive (and accurate) portrayal of Southern culture. Yes, Southern landowners are actually not portrayed as all inhuman and brutal haters of humanity! Because of this it is sometimes criticized (and by the same brilliant minds that want to ban other classics like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); nevertheless, most critiques still see the brilliance of this truly profound movie.
Gone with the Wind tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh), a strong-willed and narcissistic (spoiled brat!) wealthy daughter of a plantation owner who is married to Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), but also in “love” with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who just happens to be married as well (to Melanie Hamilton, played by Olivia de Havilland). In the end, Scarlett’s narcissism leads you to wonder if she is capable of true love at all. And it leads to her losing both of her “loves.”
This 1939 classic is still the largest grossing movie of all time, adjusted to inflation. It won ten Academy Awards and is consistently ranked in just about every top ten list of movies worth mentioning.
Directed by Victor Fleming, the underlying theme beneath all of its considerable intrigue is no matter how much a person may stray in life, there is always hope to begin again as long as one maintains those truly “Southern” and human values of faith in God, a decent and moral respect for all of mankind and the moral law. And, as long as one understands the blessing that God has given us in “the land” and family he has given us and all that represents. Even in the face of experiencing devastating loss, there is always hope.
7. The Sound of Music
Made in 1965, this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical masterpiece tells the true story (loosely) of the Von Trapp family in a period just before the “Anschluss,” as it is called, or the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. Some poetic license is taken to be sure to make for a better story, but the fact that it is based on a true story adds to the power of the film.
The story begins with a young novice, Maria Rainer, played beautifully by Julie Andrews, aspiring to become a full-fledged nun and living in the Nonnberg Abbey in the mountains of Austria. Trying to find her way in the Abbey, it becomes more and more evident that the cloistered life may not be for her so her Mother Abbess, played wonderfully by Peggy Wood, determines to send her out to work as a nanny for a recent widower and father of seven, retired Captain in the Austrian Navy, Georg Von Trapp, played by what seemed to be a somewhat out of his element Shakespearean-trained actor, Christopher Plummer, and in what became probably his greatest role.
Seemingly in over her head from the start, as the story unfolds, Maria ends up falling in love with the children, and they with her, and then eventually she falls in love with Captain Von Trapp as well. After marrying, the Nazis attempt to force Georg into a commission in their Navy forcing the Von Trapp family to flee Austria in a daring and frightful late-night escape from Austria.
There has never been a musical to compare with “The Sound of Music.” Winner of five Academy Awards, it was the last and best musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The music and singing is angelic and the story is unparalleled in its beautiful telling.
I will guarantee anyone who watches this film one thing. It is impossible to watch just once.
8. The Godfather I
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and released in 1972, the Godfather gathered an amazing array of stars to create the definitive “mob movie” inspiring many attempts, but nothing close to re-creating the magic of this the original in this genre.
The story focuses on Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), and his father, the mob boss – “Godfather,” as he is called – Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). Michael is introduced as a “war hero,” who comes home from WWII determined to steer clear of his father’s illegal enterprise, but ends up becoming the reluctant successor to his father’s empire. At first, Michael wants to “legitimize” what he calls “the family business” and bring it all above board, but over time the evil nature of “the business” draws him into a trap that he cannot escape. And by the end, he doesn’t even seem to want to escape any longer. He becomes his father, only worse.
This movie masterfully tells the story of how men become evil, often, with originally good intentions, or, at least partially good intentions, but where compromise and the slow influx of sin leads to more and more compromise and more and more sin until the end thereof, as Romans 6:23 says, “is [ultimately] death.”
Winner of three Academy Awards, the list of stars in “The Godfather” is endless. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Talia Shire, Abe Vigota, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton, Al Martino (what a voice!), and more.
9. The Godfather II
Two years after the release of the first “Godfather,” “The Godfather II” remarkably equals the first in continuing to tell the story of the slow and subtle decline – and sometimes not so slow and not so subtle – that comes as a result of sin that is embraced in the lives of men.
Nominated for a whopping eleven Academy Awards, and the winner of six, some say it was even better than Godfather I. I have difficulty choosing the better of the two, myself. The loss of Brando, for me, leaves a hole that could not quite be filled in Godfather II. And yet, even though Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the original Godfather, and father of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), and now the new “Don” of “the family,” had died in the first movie, he is resurrected, well, sort of, by way of flashbacks to a young Vito Corleone played to perfection by Robert DeNiro.
In the multiple and equally dispersed flashbacks peppered throughout the film, we see how, just like his son Michael, the father’s original intentions were at least partially noble. But just as in the first, we see the degradation and decline that is the very essence of sin enter in and reduce Michael to such a degree that in the end he transgresses against one of the virtues his father was most insistent upon: to love and protect the family.
Michael not only transgresses, but does what his father would have seen as unthinkable. He kills his own brother. But in his mind twisted by sin, you can see in the film how it “logically” followed. He “had” to do it.
I am still back and forth as to which of the two Godfathers I like more. I tend to go with #1, but #2 is truly an incredible movie!
10. The Patriot
Set at the outset of the Revolutionary War and through to the end of the war, “The Patriot,” which hit the screens in the year 2000, is an historical fiction that tells the story of a veteran and “patriot” for his country, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson, who gives a stellar performance) who had fought with ferocity alongside the British in the French and Indian War, and was considered a hero by his countrymen, but at the same time was one who, by the time of the beginning of what would become the Revolutionary War, had become a widower and father of seven who did not want to go to war. He wanted to raise his family in peace.
He had obviously had enough of war.
The story begins with Benjamin lamenting that he feared “the sins of [his] past” would come back to visit him. We later find out that he had done atrocious things to the French during the French and Indian War and that there is a ferocity in him that is truly terrifying when push comes to shove. We discover Benjamin Martin to be a very complex character, of unspeakable courage and virtue, but who also struggles between loyalty to his God, country, family, and more, while dealing with the demons of his past and of his character that can lead him to extremes of violence in war.
The story is a brilliant portrayal of how war, even just war, always brings about scars that will endure forever. Because of the evils that are inevitable in war, it is never to be chosen except as an absolutely last resort. And yet, in the midst of it all, if one does his best to do the right thing, there can be true virtue and nobility in the midst of war as well.
Benjamin Martin pays dearly, and perhaps it was, at least in part, because of “the sins of his past,” in the loss of two of his sons and one daughter-in-law in the war. And he must again and again wrestle with his demons mentioned above. However, in now battling against the British, and in particular, against an evil “Colonel William Tavington” (played chillingly by Jason Isaacs), he discovers true greatness in discovering that what is most important is the understanding of the noble end for which he is fighting, i.e., the freedom of the American colonies from the oppressive kingdom of Britain. He realizes the noble purpose for which he is fighting and that makes all the difference. His priorities become clear and his decision to fight is no longer fettered by doubt and indecision.
This movie is at times brutal in its depiction of war, and yet it also presents such a beautiful portrait of the love of a man and wife, the love of God, family, and country, that it will leave you speechless and pondering the depths of a very serious and complicated topic. I loved the way it presented no easy answers and no glorification of war itself, while recognizing the agonizing truth that sometimes war truly is both necessary and just.
I thought it was a travesty that the Patriot was only nominated for three Academy Awards, and won none. What does Mel Gibson have to do to win Best Actor? Something tells me he has made enemies in Hollywood that will never allow that to happen, no matter how glorious of a role he may play. But that’s just me.
Stay tuned for my next installment of #11 through #20!