Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

 Dromedaries and their spindly legs, flying over endless sand dunes

There’s something about the desert. It’s a place of lone meetings, where magic blows on the hot wind and where you can truly lose and find yourself. Desert settings have an irresistible pull, whether it’s in Aladdin; Jesus Christ Superstar; A New Hope; The Good, The Bad & The Ugly; or this Lawrence of Arabia.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

 Rage, rage against the dying of the light (spoiler notice)

Interstellar has become kind of a frustrating film experience. It's not what you've come to expect from Christopher Nolan, nor does it live up to... well, the thing it aspired to be. From the trailers, the concept, its whole air. Interstellar should have been a rousing appeal to look up at the stars and dream, what Gravity so successfully did in a way, and (if you'll excuse my nerdiness) Babylon 5 achieved at its greatest moments.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Stephen Sommers, 2009)

Knowing is half the battle

G.I. Joe is a cartoon from the 80s, and also a 2010 blockbuster. Oh, it’s a live action remake all right – nevertheless still a complete cartoon. But one made with such enthusiasm it’s an easy film to watch. It captures the essence of the original (quite silly) Saturday morning show about heroic (mostly American) soldiers fighting against a snake-themed terrorist organization.

Max (Menno Meyjes, 2002)

One of those people who finds a slight in any compliment

Max has an interesting thesis: Adolf Hitler wasn’t a failed artist, he was a brilliant artist. Except his medium wasn’t the pedestrian paintings he made in his homeless years, it was politics. The Third Reich was his ultimate exhibit.

The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, 2006)

History is five centuries of masculine ineptitude

A small class of British boys in the 1980s attempts to enroll into Oxford. Three teachers and one headmaster do their utmost to inspire them to greatness. They all have different ideas on how to achieve that goal, and between them linger feelings that dare not speak their name. Rather than an unsavory tale of pederast professors and demure disciples, The History Boys is a more uplifting and kindhearted story.

La Marche de L’Empereur (‘March of the Penguins’, Luc Jacquet, 2005)

But I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more

There is a profound cruelty to nature. Even humans, though we might bethink ourselves free and independent, are slaves to certain instincts. As usual, animals have it much worse. Take for instance the emperor penguin, who is driven yearly to undertake a grueling march over ice-capped Antarctica to spawn new life.

The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements, John Musker, 1989)

 Whoozits and whatzis and thingamabobs

There is a video doing the rounds on Youtube showing grown men singing Ariel’s beautiful song ‘Part Of Your World’ while at work. They’re all fathers of little girls. What an excellent illustration of the enduring appeal this film has on that group!

Taras Bulba (J. Lee Thompson, 1962)

 ZAPOROZHYE!

No, no, you've got that all wrong. Taras Bulba isn't that great at all. It's almost a holdover from a bygone age, even at the time. It has that strange and fascinating 'a cast of thousands!' brand of sensationalism that today's movies are much too subtle for – HA! But seriously, in so far as the film isn't the grossest vehicle for the grossly alluring Tony Curtis with his impossible eyes, capitalizing on his budding fame with whatever exotic trifle had been sitting on some Hollywood shelf, it's a concoction of weird themes and choices that all but fall flat.

Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957)

 Entering the sewers of human warfare (spoiler notice)

Kanal opens on German flamethrowers from a distance, setting alight a Polish town. There are no people running or screaming, no characters at all, just the fiery volleys and collapsing structures. The message is clear: the year is 1944 and terror stalks this country. We follow a militia of ordinary men set to oppose the occupier, but in the first line of narration learn their fight is hopeless and these men and women will die.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

 Cast out of the garden of Eden (spoiler notice)

“You are not an ape.” The words that Caesar, leader of the budding simian civilisation, uses to ostracize one of his own, are telling. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is quite a downer of a story, and it’s not because humanity is once again on the verge of annihilition by our own doing. Neither is it the giant skirmish between man and monkey that sees what’s left of San Francisco demolished.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

I kill you, babe (spoiler notice)

“If I could've written any screenplay, I wish it had been Groundhog Day,” is the oldest chestnut in Hollywood. Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis wrote the quintessential time travel conceit: what if you involuntarily relived the same dreadful day? It's immediately thought-provoking: would your actions affect the outcome? What reason could this possibly have – some divine joke, a Christmas Carol warning? And with basically infinite time at hand, how could I improve myself? What brought it from tittilating to masterpiece was the smart screenplay that saw Bill Murray approach this situation from every angle. Sometime Twilight Zone, sometime rom-com, working on every level.

Rurouni Kenshin (Keishi Otomo, 2012)

 Once an assassin, always an assassin

Like Ace Attorney, Rurouni Kenshin is a recent live action film based on a beloved series. Unlike it, it's really good. Forgive me, I have a penchant for historical Japanese stories that may or may not involve slicing and dicing with swords. This film knows how to slice.

Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965)

Send a message to the execution branche

What the hell is a Thunderball? Does it allude to the stolen nuclear missiles? The dancing event James Bond visits? Or is it the infusion of two terms that having little to do with anything, but sound really exciting and dangerous? Welcome... to Thunderadeus.

The Fog of War / The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2003 and 2013)

Everything seems amazing in retrospect

US foreign policy (all right, let's just say US foreign warfare) over the last one hundred years is an amazing field of study. From the heroic efforts of WW2 to the crushing disaster in Vietnam and the sinister motivations lingering around Iraq: these conflicts have shaped the world. They bring along heavy emotions and their historical value is formed and reformed, every year, in the alligator pit of public opinion.

Gyakuten Saiban ('Ace attorney', Takashi Miike, 2012)

Objection!

I adore the Ace Attorney video games. Ever since they saw their western release on the Nintendo DS in 2005, they've swept me and countless other fans along with the adventures of rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, out to prove the innocence of his hapless clients. Might it not be dull to follow an interactive, procedural courtroom drama, you wonder? Far from it. The genius move developer Capcom made was to recontextualize the proceedings of a trial as epic bouts of fighting between the lawyers – clawing their way back from the abyss of defeat, throwing around evidence in fury and engaging in explosive questioning.

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Communism was just a red herring!

After his marquee role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tim Curry seemed set to conquer Hollywood. It was the mid-70s and the young actor was bristling with his trademark maniacal energy. Alas, what  lay in store for him was not the stardom he deserved, but an endless parade of parts for odd villains and quirky side-characters. I think Curry was too bizarre, too British, and his intonation too unique to entice anyone to let him play the lead.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014)

 Offering some of the finest destruction of hardware since the Death Star

No one has ever done what Marvel Studios are doing. Merely consider how wildly ambitious their plan: to construct a vast universe in which various superheroes, each with their own line of movies, come together in overlapping ways, split up in multiple phases spanning years and years of planning and releases. There have now been no less than nine films since the release of what was ostensibly the first shot fired in their scheme; Iron Man in 2008.

Le Grand Restaurant (Jacques Besnard, 1966)

Sechs Eier, Salz, Butter, und…? Muskatnuss!

He is perhaps the quintessential French comedian: Louis de Funès. He starred in countless humorous classics, the most well-known of which his legendary ‘Gendarmes’ series. Le Grand Restaurant is of a later date than this, and stars Funès at his absolute best. It is also a much funnier film and deserves recognition.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013)

Every dragon needs his pile of lucre

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug puts perhaps its best and most pleasing joke right at the start. We enter the city of Bree with a token swoop landing of the camera, and greeting us there is Peter Jackson himself. The director is literally the first character in the film, looking straight at us and crunching a carrot. Not only does it hearken back to The Fellowship of the Ring, where he cameo’d as a more menacing drunk welcoming our entry into the town with a burp, it’s almost an audacious statement: “Look at me, I know this is all silliness and I don’t care what you think. I’m the ruffian in Bree and this is my Middle-Earse.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

Thin, like butter scraped over too much bread

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a pleasant enough film, and transports one back to the world of Middle-earth, pronounced as “Middle-earse” if your name is Ian McKellan. Though, this is clearly not the land we left with 2003’s Return of the King. This is a happier place, a less scary place, where goofy wizards chase around on rabbit-drawn sleds and goblin decapitations come as easy and without consequence as drawing breath.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2014)

We were somewhere around Wall Street when the drugs began to take hold
(spoiler notice)

The idea of Wall Street is a virus. Its vector is the human flaw of greed. The Wolf of Wall Street – based on a very real, very disturbing person's life – is a subtle but strong exposition of that contagion. The film starts with fresh-faced Jordan Belfort, here a youth still filled to the brim with ideals as much as a lust for fortune, out to lunch with an older shark. Cocaine is carelessly sniffed into a nostril, a hymn of ripping people off and making money, money, money pounded fist to chest. Jordan's eyes begin to sparkle. The film ends with the man, now himself the predator, before an audience of wide-mouthed aspirants, ready to believe. Greed isn't good, it's a plague.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, 2014)

What it is is beautiful (spoiler notice)

Ah, Lego. The grand hobby. Not merely a toy for children, but an infinite arena of creativity where hundreds of thousands of adults around the world explore their ideas or simply enjoy the delightful sound of bricks clicking together. Lego holds an enormous pull on creative minds. The Lego Movie is at its surface an animated feature aimed at kids, but shhh, don't tell that to the packed theater audience I sat in, which existed exclusively of excited 20- and 30-somethings.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)

 Facsimiles of life

I've been postponing writing this review. I'm terrified of it. Synecdoche, New York, directed by Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), is a terrifying film. In its breadth it's all-encompassing. Like every Kaufman effort it spits on conventions, rejects standard structure and dares to poke uncomfortable places. It's about all of life. Real life. Fake life. There's no distinction. I'm so glad this was made, but I'm at a loss for how to put it in words. It almost feels like one of the director's own scenarios.

Mission: Impossible 3 (J.J. Abrams, 2006)

I'm gonna hurt her. I'm gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name.

We live in a world where, for better or worse, franchises rule the day. Making an original piece of work to expose your ideas to the world is tough, more so when you can earn better money directing the next Iron Man or James Bond. The end result is usually a formulaic experience, marred by the constraints of an existing idea. And yet, ever so often, the framework is used to create something that elevates beyond the source material.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)

 We now turn to the subject of dystopias

It was a while since I saw the first Hunger Games, but the setting quickly returned to me. A future nation with twelve impoverished districts ruled over by one highly advanced, sophisticated city state, a little like a less cannibalizing Morlocks versus Eloi, or quite like, if you're into political parables, modern day US versus most second and third world countries. The nation's name, Panem, instantly brings 'bread' to mind, after the Latin word. It nicely links up to the idea of the Hunger Games as a way to not only punish, but also pacify the populace. Bread and circuses are the oldest means of appeasement, after all.

Zatoichi The Last (Junji Sakamoto, 2010)

 A final tear for the blind warrior

Zatoichi is a Japanese folk hero. He’s the Robin Hood type, taking the side of poor villagers crushed under the might of powerful yakuza gangs, whose appeal lies in his simple trappings. Though an expert swordsman and lethal warrior (not to mention serviceable masseur), he doesn’t have any airs. He’s a simple guy, naturally humble, an outcast by his lack of sight. He’s emphatically not a samurai, but a commoner. Since wearing katana was outlawed for anyone but samurai in the Edo period, Zatoichi carries a hidden cane sword. It doesn’t make him any less deadly.

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara

C. C. Baxter is not master of his own domain. His bachelor pad is used as a romantic getaway for extramarital affairs by his company bosses. When he gets home after long hours, he often finds his guests are still there and waits outside until they’re gone. By this inconvenience he hopes to rise in the office ranks, but truth be told, it seems more likely he’s being strung along by superiors taking advantage of his kind nature.

Silent Hill (Christophe Gans, 2006)

This town will surely win

There is a long history of video game franchises making it to the big screen, and most of its cadaverous remains speaks of an agonized demise. The reason for this gruesome metaphor is that one of the rare film adaptations to get it right is Silent Hill, after Konami’s Japanese horror series. It seemed fitting to stay on theme.

Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974)

Beware of giant floating evil broadcasting mountainous heads

Zardoz is a Monty Python-esque nightmare played straight. It is a baffling, luminous, original film that defies description. This review will attempt to do just that and inevitably fail. If your curiosity is at this point piqued to give Zardoz a try, I strongly recommend you skip this article and just watch it instead, without any advance notions of what it is.