With few exceptions, I love movies.
The three exclusions on my list are (1) spooky, shock-filled, slasher and horror films (the closest I can get are the psychological thrillers such as Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs), (2) juvenile comedies, which I cannot take at all, although I do like a good farce, but they are few and far between (Life of Brian stands out singularly) but this does not include films that tries to make a point through a humorous or absurd situation (good ones being Risky Business, Groundhog Day, Ferris Bueller, Stripes, and Trading Places), and (3) the love/romance genre is hit and miss (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, LA LA Land, The Devil Wears Prada, Pretty Woman, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Lake House all being infinitely watchable, while I can barely get through the trailers for 50 Shades, When Harry met Sally, The Notebook, and Sex and the City).
I have reviewed a couple of these in print over the course of 15 years as a contributor to the (now defunct) annual “Summer Reading” column in the Journal of Chemical Education.
The Man from Earth (2007)
Grant me these 90 minutes of your life and you will not be disappointed. My first recommendation, and my only one if I were forced to it, is an overlooked movie from 2007 called The Man from Earth. This is Jerome Bixby’s last sci-fi story. Bixby was the writer of the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror”, which gave rise to the entire mirror universe saga that ran through every incarnation of the TV shows. But I digress. “ Sci-fi” is definitely in quotes, here, because there are no space ships, blue alien avatars, ray guns, slime, robots, Spandex, cute kids, Keanu Reaves, explosions, or creatures that pop out from someone’s belly.
This movie is about an idea. A simple “ What if?” scenario that then gets played out, and draws intelligently from a study of human reactions and behaviors. The Man from Earth is a low-budget piece made up of one long conversation that takes place in a cabin (an actual cabin, not a set). In that cabin are an academic and some colleagues from various disciplines. The colleagues are surprised that their peer is giving up his tenure and moving on. But then they learn that he believes himself to be a 14,000-year-old man who must forever move on as people begin to notice he does not age.
How would a group of academic colleagues that includes a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychiatrist, and a religious studies professor go about interrogating this guy? How would he make his case? Trust me on this one: just get it and enjoy yourself. And do yourself a favor: don’t watch it alone, because you are going to want to talk to someone afterwards.
Never heard of it? That’s a little surprising, given the star power and the basic plot.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Michael Sheen… check!
Plot: Soldier-turned-terrorist plants 3 nuclear bombs in 3 US cities. It’s Monday. They are scheduled to go off at noon on Friday. Genuine tension and thrills follow…. check!
Publicity: none… curious!
Release: straight to DVD… curiouser!
Despite my plot summary, Unthinkable is not another Tom Clancy novel turned into a movie: no Jack Ryan; low production values (they rented out a high school, not that it was a bad choice); no chases; no special effects. No Air Force One barreling down a runway as an ash cloud nips its tail; no press conferences; no somber news reports from the Oval Office.
In fact, the soldier-turned-terrorist is caught early in the first act, and he needs to be interrogated. And that is the movie. If you recall the scenes of information-extraction from (the first two seasons of) Alias then you really have seen comparable information-extracting techniques. But in those scenes, of course, an evil man (often a foreign villain with a dentist’s drill) was carrying on with our heroes. You can show that on TV, because we (Americans) can and will overcome great evil!
But what if the guy with the drill is Samuel L. Jackson, family man, and the prisoner in the chair is a US citizen? What are the rights… the morality… when nuking 3 US cities is on the line? Apparently, asking this interesting question does not mix well with a super-tub of popcorn, a big blue drink, and a box of candy-coated chocolates at the Bijou. So the decision-makers by-passed the theatrical release and went straight to DVD. What a pity: making a movie about an idea.
As the story goes, the US box office did not like the two contemporary and fabulous, high-production value movies about terrorism, the search for WMDs, and the war that accompanied them (2008’s Hurt Locker and 2010’s Green Zone, which, by the way, make a great triple feature with Unthinkable), so the powers-that-be did not think audiences would even go see Unthinkable when the moral ambiguity was so high. We just don’t like knowing these things, or seeing them at the cinema. Don’t ask, don’t tell… and for pity’s sake, don’t make a movie about it!
And just to make matters that much more interesting, the DVD has the “original version” (the one planned for US release) and the “extended version” (the one planned for the rest of the world). The difference is 90 seconds, and it’s how you end the story.
THE HONORABLE MENTION: 48 FILMS WORTH WATCHING
It Happened One Night (1934) – the birth of the “screwball comedy”
Philadelphia Story (1940) – Grant… Hepburn… Stewart… a trifecta of great
Casablanca (1942) – probably tops my list of best movie ever
Key Largo (1948) – tense film noire, classic crime drama
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – crisply written cautionary tale
The African Queen (1951) – John Huston directs Kate Hepburn & Bogart
Roman Holiday (1953) – introducing Audrey Hepburn
Rififi (1955) – the birth of the “heist” movie that all have copied
Bridge over the River Kwai (1957) – a love letter to honor and nobility
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) – incredibly thoughtful reconstruction
My Fair Lady (1964) – as sexist and annoying as it is enjoyable
The Sting (1973) – Newman and Redford spin gold from straw
Life of Brian (1979) – the ‘Book of Mormon’ for Christians
Taps (1981) – “Lord of the Flies” at a military academy
Body Heat (1981) – smart, sexy, modern noire; overlooked by a generation
WarGames (1983) – How.about.a.nice.game.of.chess?
The Breakfast Club (1985) – “culturally significant” – Library of Congress
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – They’ll still be watching this move in 2086
A Few Good Men (1992) – “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
Scent of a Woman (1992) – you want Pacino on your side
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – literary prison break
Heat (1995) – you want Pacino on your side
Dead Man (1995) – A completely overlooked Johnny Depp film
12 Monkeys (1995) – Ranks above “Somewhere in Time” in a genre I love
Good Will Hunting (1997) -the best “teacher movie” on my list
Shakespeare in Love (1998) -wit & charm, a love letter to the theatre
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – the most charming sociopath in fiction
Chicago (2002) – constructed better than the staged version
Owning Mahowny (2003) – PSH acting masterpiece about bank fraud
Downfall (2004) – historically groundbreaking view of Hilter’s last days
Good Night and Good Luck (2005) – all actual footage of Joe McCarthy
V for Vendetta (2005) – prescient in ways they imagined it
The Departed (2006) – Scorsese, Damon, DiCaprio, Nicholson, Wahlberg
Inside Man (2006) – exceptionally clever
The Rape of Europa (2007) – controversy around art stolen by the Nazis
The Art of the Steal (2009) – controversy around stolen art in Philadelphia
The Adjustment Bureau (2011) – determinism versus free will
We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) – devastating tale of maternal love
12 Years a Slave (2013) – just watch this movie
The Imitation Game (2014) – 2011 BBC doc on Turing Codebreaker is better
A Most Wanted Man (2014) – smart, compelling espionage thriller
Whiplash (2014) – what do you owe the world if you recognize genius?
Eye in the Sky (2015) – tightly written, thoughtful white-knuckle thriller
Call Me By Your Name (2017) – all love in unrequited
You Were Never Really Here (2017) – a vengeance thriller story
Love, Simon (2018) – everyone deserves a great love story
Beast (2018) – so much more than your average serial-killer movie
First Redeemed (2018) – a crisis of faith with a thought-provoking ending