There’s something about movies that fascinates us, likely because we’re so addicted to dreams we need them even awake. Whether laughing, crying, thinking, or longing, we need these special lenses to show our individual places within the world, to shape, guide, and make us — for a couple hours — want to be more than who we are.
Let’s look at a few movies that do precisely that so well, they transcend their medium.
Life perplexes. Life mystifies. It teases, enraptures, amazes, enrages, and ultimately silences. The best films to capture the messy grandeur of life do all those things. The endings may not be clear-cut, the scripts at times largely improvised, characters will behave in ways we might not have predicted, but we love these movies for the heart they provide in an often uncomfortable world.
If you’re one who never thought they’d see Amelie featured on Black Gate, welcome to Zig world. Everything is chance, even when we plan. Everything is wonderful, even when we cry. What if you could ensure that a life here and a life there would turn out a little brighter because of something you did? Would you do it? Amelie, by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is a delightful fantasy of questions accompanied by a sense of wonder, one that reinforces the truth that just because life isn’t tidy doesn’t mean we can’t tidy our corners of it.
[Click the posters for Hollywood-sized versions.]
Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a brilliant meditation on what constitutes being alive. Is it lifespan? Memories? This tale of androids and humans shakes up perceptions of what is life and who gets to live it.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
“A world of pure imagination”… and also one of endless vices. If presented with everything you could ever want, will you want more? Is that all life is, a constant scrabbling to accumulate, possess, steal, or usurp? Knowing the limits of “enough” in life may be the highest reward.
Wings of Desire
Life, death, love, pain, healing, rebirth: the cycles of life whether among angels or mortals. Wim Wenders’s poetic vision on love and sacrifice is a film for those needing to remember feeling cherished no matter what, which is what so many of us — often without having the words to voice the pain — want so very much. What besides the ineffable need to connect would make an angel think about losing its wings for love?
What Dreams May Come
Life is a coin constantly flipped, but we never get to see what’s on its other side. When our eyes close that final time, will we dream? Or are we simply gone? Portraying humanity’s attempt to navigate the afterlife cemented Robin Williams as not only a great comedic actor but also a dramatic presence, and perhaps sadly presaged his later life.
A good romance isn’t necessarily a good love story. Love gets messy. When? All the time. Shakespeare might have said love wasn’t love that altered when it alteration met, but we’re here to counter that love is nothing but alteration. A slippery, ill-defined shapeshifter.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Is love remembered still love, and is remembrance sufficient unto itself? Is love lost still love, and is that why the pains of love linger? There are those of us who would do anything to forget someone we thought we’d love forever, turning the world into a huge playground of romantic amnesia. This film follows two such people with wit, humor, and pathos.
Don Juan Demarco
“There are only four questions of value in life, Don Octavio. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: only love.” When you think you’re the greatest lover in the world, you ask such questions. You come to that particular answer. Then you lose the one person you considered the love of your life. A deep chasm opens. You fall, but do you remain inside or emerge renewed?
Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love
The sensual world makes heady demands of us. When we give ourselves over to it fully, sexuality entwines with sensuality to become duality. This drama is one of the most lush, gorgeous, arousing movies you and your lover might have the pleasure of viewing, even if there’s a need to pause it a few times. For reasons.
A scientist finds that the mind has the power to change reality internally and externally, bridging altered states of consciousness from thought to physical form. This classic from the Paddy Chayefsky novel of the same name flows like a roadmap through the dimensional multiverse.
The interconnectedness of time, space, and thought plays out over 500 years and through the lives of disparate people, showing the ripples individual lives produce on who becomes who, and when, in time. Past, present and future are in constant interplay in this challengingly brilliant film.
Who doublechecks the forms needed to ensure reality functions properly? In this classic from Terry Gilliam, a single typo in surnames throws a man named Buttle into the life of a revolutionary named Tuttle, leading the bureaucrat assigned to clear up the mistake dropped into the fascistic and hellishly ridiculous reality of human power structures.
The Truman Show
When this movie premiered, the idea of reality shows taking over our lives was novel. Funny how life hands its beer to art to hold. The titular character in this 1998 film starring Jim Carrey lives his entire life from childhood to adulthood in a fake town (unbeknownst to him) of actors and cameras. When everything we do is, as musician David Byrne sang in the song Angels, an advertisement for a version of ourselves, what, exactly, is reality?
Sometimes life tosses you into a car, says hold on, and floors the gas. When it stops it gives you a case. Inside the case, something glows. You are never to open the case. Can you live a normal life under those conditions? This movie says you already do, since reality is the ultimate random ride of the unknown.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
It’s not surprising that the movies that tend to examine the pegs, cogs, and gears that make up the “human being” fall under the scope of fantasy or science fiction where, as in real life, the imagination is first and foremost the primary driver of all narratives.
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Sacrifice is uniquely human, and it’s hard to beat Captain America in Winter Soldier going all-out to save a friend even while betrayed and hunted by elements of the country he swore to protect.
One of the first things you think of when you think “human” is family, and few movies capture the awesome strengths of family better than this gem, yet this film touches on so much more. When the world no longer needs heroes, what becomes of the hero? Self-worth has rarely been handled so adroitly as in this tale of a super family.
Humans are the top of the food chain. We eat everything, and we’re constantly looking for more. Okja, from director Bong Joon-ho, takes humanity’s hubris out of the food chain equation and opens the audience to questions of the nature of man and beast. If we are what we eat, why do we so often go out of our ways to be willfully ignorant of exactly what we’re eating?
The Dark Crystal
The ancient question: Is good an only child, or is evil its unloved sibling? Jim Henson’s fable of good and evil as halves of a whole presented a fascinating world to children and adults when it premiered in 1982. It’s as much about self-knowledge and self-acceptance as it is about quests to heal the world.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
In Star Trek, aliens were often stand-ins for some aspect of humanity, none more famous than Spock. This first big screen treatment of the classic television show grabbed viewers with a question revealed to Spock by a nearly god-like force seeking its creator: “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” There are few things more human than grasping the enormity of those prospects.
A lonely robot spends 700 years cleaning up Earth’s trash after humans have made the world uninhabitable. An alien probe inadvertently flies the bot into space, where it reunites with what’s become of humanity: people who are so lazy they spend their lives in hover chairs, and whose primary means of communicating to each other is via screens even when they’re in the same room. The robot attempts to rouse humanity from its stupor. This begs the question: Are we still human when machines become more humane than we are?
That’s a question that should keep you up at night.
Zig Zag Claybourne wishes he’d grown up with the powers of Gary Mitchell or Charlie X, but without the Kirk confrontations (sci fi points docked for anyone not getting said references). He spent many hours in front of The Twilight Zone and considers himself a better person for it. His last article for Black Gate was Transformed: A Primer on Minister Faust. You can find his wordy bits scattered throughout the web, but if you really want to get to know him the door’s always open at www.writeonrighton.com.