1. Braveheart (1995) – My favorite movie of all time. This movie quite literally changed my life in that it sparked in me a love for Scotland and the British Isles. It is, on one level, a simple story of one man, William Wallace (Mel Gibson), leading his people to liberty; in many ways, Scottish independence becomes a precursor to its American descendant. On another level, Gibson treats this as a nationalist Christ story. Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfayden) is a troubled Peter figure who reflects our deepest sense of inspiration and our worst expressions of betrayal. Wallace’s legacy transcends time as the film ends with the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn in what is arguably one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history.
2. Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) – Peter Jackson revives the Hollywood epic in three installments of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic. A quiet hobbit goes on a quest to save Middle-Earth from the imminent conquest of darkness. Few movies can touch emotionally, amaze aesthetically, and instruct philosophically as these films. The simplicity of the Shire is matched in adoration only by the grand scope of Gondor, illustrating that Jackson has complete mastery of the story and his cinematic elements. A classic mythos of the internal battle of good and evil.
3. Heat (1995) – This tragicomedy is a crime drama set in L.A. Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro reverse their conventional roles, with Pacino as the cop and DeNiro as the professional thief, complimented by an all-star ensemble. This casting decision is profound, as the tale reveals that these two men are identical in character—all that separates them is the law, and on which side they stand. The movie is long and slow, as the heists only take up several scenes; the focus is instead on the investigation, on the heat the police bring down on the thieves. Pacino and DeNiro are two enemies, curiously reconciled at the end.
4. The Good Shepherd (2006) – Matt Damon plays an incorrigibly withdrawn Yale student turned intelligence officer, whose exploits in World War II earn him the bones to create the agency known as CIA. Over the course of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, his obsession with national security and political intrigue breaks up all of his relationships and destroys his soul. Religious imagery is subtle, yet powerful, demonstrating the great spiritual cost when the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
5. The Godfather (1972, 1974, 1990) – As beloved as it is critically acclaimed, this mob movie is, interestingly enough, more concerned with the family than with The Family. The films follow the career of Michael Corleone and his father, Vito, from Vito’s journey to America at the turn of the century to Michael’s foray into legitimate corporate enterprises in the 1970s. Michael moves from ambivalence with the corrupt “family business” to complete immersion and an imperial impulse to control everything and everyone around him; his assumption of the Godfather title during the murders of the Five Families is arguably one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history. The third film was criticized for not living up to the theatrical heights of the first two, but I believe Michael’s refusal to believe in his own salvation culminates a fitting tragedy for a despicable, yet sympathetic hero.
6. Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – This film took a number of creative liberties with the historical tale, not unlike Braveheart, but it encapsulates much of what really occurred in the Second Crusade. Ridley Scott does an excellent job of depicting medieval culture and the ideal of the knightly ethos. This is also one of several movies to begin exploring Islamo-Christian relations in the wake of 9/11. The Muslims are rightly depicted as taking a long view of history, patiently waiting to establish an Islamic eschatology in the re-capture of Jerusalem and recognizing that, in geopolitics, image is just as important as substance. “What is Jerusalem?” Balian asks Saladin. To which Saladin replies, “Nothing…and everything.”
7. Road to Perdition (2002) – Tom Hanks’ breadth is demonstrated in this simple film of an antihero and his twelve-year-old son in 1930s Chicago. After his wife and youngest child are slaughtered by the very gang he works for, Michael Sullivan (Hanks) and his oldest boy take to the road. They hide from his boss (Paul Newman), rob Capone’s banks, and set out to kill the men who murdered their family. A touching tale of fathers and sons, this movie shows that the path to redemption and the path to destruction cross each other more than we think.
8. The Lion in Winter (1968) – A brilliant story of a corrupt and vicious family, this film takes place on Christmas Day in 1183. Henry II lets his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, out of the Tower for one day so that she may spend the holiday with him and their three sons. During the course of the day, the family experiences very little love and uses every depraved strategy imaginable to increase their own social station and political position. Beautiful in their barbarity, Katherine Hepburn took home an Oscar and Peter O’Toole was aptly nominated. Anthony Hopkins (Richard I), John Castle (Geoffrey of Anjou), and Timothy Dalton (Philip II) guest star.
9. Gettysburg (1993) – The most critical battle in the Civil War comes alive in this film. Adapted from Michael Sharaa’s The Killer Angels, an excellent novel, the story follows Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on opposite sides of the battlefield. The film is expertly cast, with Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain, Tom Berenger as General Longstreet, Stephen Lang as General George Pickett, and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee. These devoted men help forge the national character, and we love them for their resolve, their honor, and their faith. Lee’s adoration by his men in the moments before Pickett’s Charge results in what is arguably one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history.
10. More to come…