Top 10 Atmospheric Movies

The setting of a movie can be its own character when done well. Place is extremely important to any movie, but not all movies pull of place as character. These ten movies are extremely atmospheric – movies in which the place is suffocating, or debilitating, or enhances the story. These atmospheres are consuming. I could have filled this list with war, horror and sci-fi films, so I decided to steer clear of them.

10. Frozen River (dir. Courtney Hunt 2008)

This quiet, but powerful film is all the more powerful due to how Courtney Hunt uses the frozen river as a character. It creaks, it cracks, it is a source of anxiety, a source of comfort, a source of life and death. Melissa Leo gives an outstanding performance of a down-on-her-luck mother.

9. Insomnia (dir. Christopher Nolan 2002)

It’s a great detective movie made all the better due to the setting. Insomnia takes place in a northern Alaska town where the sun never sets. It’s disarming and Christopher Nolan uses it to great effect.

8. A River Runs Through It (dir. Robert Redford 1992)

If you’ve ever been fly fishing, you know the allure of the river. It calls your name and begs you to spend time with it. Redford masterfully captures this fact and films the river beautifully. The river constantly calls.

7. Dead Poets Society (dir. Peter Weir 1989)

The boarding school is definitely its own character in this movie. It’s an inspiring story, but the boarding school seems to suffocate.

6. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle 2008)

The slums of Mumbai are on full display in this film. They not only provide the setting, but are crucial to the plot and story of the film.

5. Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg 1975)

When a movie comes along that scares a generation out of the water, the setting must have played a part in it.

4. Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn 2007)

The topography and landscape of this film is a catalyst for change for Christopher, the main character. Without the setting, their would be no transformation; their would be no journey.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont 1994)

In this fantastic film, the prison changes Andy and provides a the suffocating force that he must escape.

2. Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis 1993)

Setting plays so much into this film. Phil has to learn to love the place he’s in before he can love himself and eventually others.

1. There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson 2007)

The vast open spaces of Texas plays a major part in this revelatory film, especially during the almost silent opening sequence.


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Toy Story 3

When thinking about the best trilogies ever to grace the screen, people might talk about The Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Back to the Future, or Star Wars. Out of those four, The Lord of the Rings is the only one without a weak finish. It’s hard to do a trilogy well. Toy Story does trilogy well. Toy Story 3 is one of the top 2 or 3 trilogy finishes of all time. It’s a solid entry into the Toy Story mythology and some may argue it’s the best of all three of the films.

This adventure film harkens back to the beginning of Pixar, when ingenuity, chase, and adventure dominated their movies. Pixar, as a production house, has evolved into something pretty amazing with their three best films: Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up. The heart that those films portray is moving and beautiful. Toy Story 3 has heart, but not like the Pixar films of late. This movie really relies on the fondness formed for these characters in the previous 2 films and because of that, the movie becomes a moving portrait of friendship and family.

The creative ingenuity that the Toy Story franchise is known for is in full effect in this entry. There are new toys on display and new perils that face Woody and his gang. This really is a dark and scary film. The Baby and Lotso are genuinely terrifying and the basis for their evil ways is done incredibly well and is believable.

This really is a movie about banding together as a group into a family that looks out for each other and sacrifices for each other. Family includes those we don’t choose and those we choose, but through all of it, family is together; is in it all together and will support and love each other in a deep and meaningful way.

It’s also a movie about the importance of toys and imagination in the life of every child, no matter how old they are. Creativity and imagination are essential in the lives of young people growing up and Toy Story 3 does a great job at portraying the positive effects of those aspects of our brain.

The animation, once again, is spectacular. There is a depth and attention to detail that is rarely seen outside of Pixar films. It’s genius animation and the detail is worth the price of admission alone, but it’s not just a movie that looks good, it’s a story, though prototypical, that works extremely well.
There have been many escape films over the years and they all follow a similar route. This movie is no exception, but it does it in a solid and deep way that continues to surprise and thrill to the very end.

If someone enjoyed the first two films, they would certainly enjoy this final chapter. It’s a great escape and adventure film about the importance of coming together, of forming a bond that runs deep, of creativity and imagination, and the loss of innocence, but not the loss of imagination, about the perpetual nature of toys and the love of family. This is a movie that shouldn’t be missed. Finally a great film comes out in 2010.


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Paradise Now

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not going away any time soon. At least that is what it seems like. Both sides want what they want and both sides feel they have a right to it. In Paradise Now, the story of the conflict is told through the perspective of Palestinian suicide bombers. These are not evil men trying to perpetrate evil on the world. They aren’t opponents of peace and dignity. They feel like they are victims; that nothing is effective except bombing. Their military is inefficient compared to the massive stronghold of a military that Israel has.

The subject matter isn’t conducive to escapism. This is the opposite of escapism in film; this is realism. The movie is not shot in any stylistic way. It’s not shown to beautify a process of murder, nor is it shot to demonize what is being done. It’s not smooth or gritty. It feels real and that really benefits the movie. The direction and cinematography are not distracting; it’s almost invisible as one gets engrossed in the story.

The story is simple, yet effective. Two down on their luck Palestinian men are chosen to carry out a mission in the name of Allah. They find out about the mission the night before they are to carry it out and they get to spend one last night with their family. The day finally arrives and the mission is on. After some obstacles are set in their way, the question becomes, will they go through with it? Is it right? Is this the way to propagate peace? The two men come to a decision.

During the night before the mission, one of the men, Said, goes to the home of a girl he has a crush on (Suha) and has a very interesting conversation with her about movies. Suha asks him his favorite genre and he can’t really answer. He doesn’t know how to answer. She asks him if he’s ever been to the cinema. Once, he said, the day of the demonstration when we blew it up. She keeps asking him, why the cinema. He can’t really answer; he pauses to think and then finally says, “Why us?”

Small conversations like that are littered throughout the straightforward, no nonsense script. A poignant discussion of collaborators and martyrs happens near the end of the movie that provides the basis of why Said wants to be a suicide bomber. Suha doesn’t understand why anyone would do it; what effect it has; what purpose it serves.

The other suicide bomber, Kahled is at a point in his life where he needs to believe in something greater than himself. Kahled is a screw-up, not keeping a job for more than a minute and when this opportunity to go on a mission for God arises, he is all for it. His life now has purpose, where it didn’t before. He is going to be a hero. Said has different reasons to be a suicide bomber that are revealed later in the movie, but are they good enough reasons?

The movie does a great job of telling the story from the side of the victim. Said says that Israel plays the role of oppressor and of victim: how can you defeat that? When the world sees Israel as victim and Israel is one of the most powerful militaries in the world, how can Palestine compete? Kahled and Said’s answer to that is suicide bombing. Is there another way? Is there a way Palestine and Israel can be on equal footing?

The acting in the movie is fantastic. All of the actors seem to be real people reacting in ways typical to their character. Said’s mother, Hiam Abbass, is particularly wonderful. She has the special ability of conveying a myriad of emotions with a look. She is fantastic. She had a good role in The Visitor as well, one of my top 10 movies in which cultures collide.

This is a fantastic little film that realistically portrays the role of a Palestinian suicide bomber with humanity and dignity. It’s a movie that should be watched and discussed. Sometimes we need to see the other side to finally see the truth.


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Despicable Me

Despicable Me turned out to be a different movie than expected. Usually, that’s a good thing. Surprises at movies are few and far between these days – original ideas are getting harder to come by. But this movie does nothing more than follow familiar beats.

It’s hard not to be influenced by the marketing of this movie. The minions have been everywhere. If a television was turned on in the last few months, a preview was probably seen. If people were amused at the minions on television, they would probably thoroughly enjoy this movie. If they found the minions annoying, Despicable Me would hardly resonate with them.

Gru, the despicable character voiced by funny man Steve Carell, is essentially the Grinch, but instead of stealing Christmas, he decides to be the greatest villain of all time by stealing the moon. Yes, the moon. Hijinks ensue with a rival villain and that should have been the movie. It should have been entirely fun and creative, but it turned out to be ordinary and amusing.

This movie follows every beat that the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas had, but it doesn’t do it as well. The audience never really feels how despicable Gru actually is. He is consistently played with an undercurrent of humanity, so his inevitable change isn’t surprising. That’s too bad because this movie had the potential to be great, to be moving, to have an emotional heart, but it never quite reaches that potential. It should have stuck to being a fun and entertaining heist movie.

A few of the gags work well the first time, but after they are played once, they lose the emotional impact and they fall flat. It’s a fairly funny movie, but the laughs aren’t consistent.

The movie does remind the audience about the importance of family and connection to others. It really does let people know the impact parents have on the lives of their children. The presence of a quality older adult in the lives of children can have a massive positive effect. The impact of Gru’s mother was felt throughout his life and changed the course of his life. The movie also focuses on orphans in a stereotypical way, but it does make the case for adoption and family.

Stereotypes run rampant in this movie and are played for laughs, but the laughs don’t come. Fat American tourists, evil bankers, the evil woman who runs an orphanage, the square jawed newscaster are all examples of stereotypes that seem to have run their course and have lost their juice.

Despicable Me has the potential to have a heart and have a deep emotional impact, but it never quite gets there. The heist and villainy are both fun and enjoyable, but there never is enough of it. The movie is humorous without being really funny. The little minions are clever, but don’t do enough to carry the movie. This is one movie that doesn’t need to be seen in theatres. It’s definitely a fun movie to watch at home.


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Predators has the potential to be a great suspenseful film about the nature of humanity and the surprising lengths we go to survive, but it never strives to be that. Predators is content with being a fun and amusing B-movie romp and is not ashamed of that fact. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t succeed at being more than just entertaining.

Because of the nature of the beast, the script is paper-thin. None of characters have any development and are just stereotypical stock characters. This sort of thing is nothing new. Because the movie doesn’t have the time for developing characters (this isn’t really true, every movie has time to develop characters), it relies on the audiences’ pre-conceived notions of these characters. The characters are exactly what we’d expect and nothing more. This is helpful in a movie where the action is non-stop and characters are being picked off one by one, but only one of those facts are true. The movie tries to have quiet contemplative moments that don’t do the job of humanizing the characters. It ends up being boring exposition. The action isn’t the type of confusing nonsense that is popular in movies today, but it is a bit silly and shot in a way that doesn’t build any suspense.

As an action star, Adrien Brody is an interesting choice. The filmmakers made a bold casting choice, and that is definitely commendable. Brody is infinitely more interesting than 99% of the action stars today, but unfortunately that’s where the interestingness ends. The filmmakers didn’t utilize his talent, instead they chose to try and hone him into a prototypical action star. If that was the goal all along, that was a strange choice in casting. The movie had such a great potential with the casting and it was never realized.

Even though this was a fun B-movie, there are things in it that can be extrapolated. Even though the prey are the dregs of humanity, a bit of dignity is retained. The humans don’t all turn into animals and strict survivalists, they retain their humanness. They realize that teamwork and collaboration is necessary to defeat the enemy. Humans are stronger in numbers and we can do exponentially more together than we can alone. This simple fact is apparent consistently throughout the movie. It’s hard to win alone, but when unity among people happens, success can be had.

Predators really could have been a thrilling, suspenseful ride that had something to say about humanity, but it never had that ambition. If a fairly fun B-movie is what is wanted, this is the movie to watch. If anyone is looking for more than that, go to the local art house and find some quality.


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Adapting Books to Film

Book to Film adaptations are a tricky thing to navigate. They are two distinctly different mediums, but they are similar in ways that make people believe they should be the same. Film is truly visual. As much or more is said with a look than with a word. Books work through the words on the page. The turn of a phrase, the description of a setting, the dialogue: all of these things are essential to the success of a book. How does one successfully adapt a book to a film?

There are a couple of routes that adapters usually take. One of them is the faithful adaptation. They follow the beats and the plot of the novel to make the film and a lot of the time they lift dialogue straight out of the novel and throw it into the screenplay. This works extremely well if there is an adept director at the helm that knows how to set the mood and tone of the story with visuals and music. When the director focuses on the subconscious acts during the conscious interaction, the movie works. When the director is focused on plot beats and is just trying to get to the next scene, it doesn’t work. It’s about everything that isn’t said as much as it is about what is said. A film that does this well Atonement directed by Joe Wright. Joe Wright gets the mood and tone of the story pegged correctly right away. The story is all about misperception and the camera allows this to be put at the forefront.

Another route is to take the source material and totally re-do the story to make it fit in a visual medium. This route usually sparks the filmmaker with a solid idea that he/she builds upon. It’s not about being faithful to the plot and characters; it’s about building on a solid idea and adapting it to a visual story. The most effective filmmakers do this well when they focus their energy on the script and story. Since they are taking liberties with the source material, the script needs to have a solid story to flesh out. One film that does this really well is Up in the Air directed by Jason Reitman. Reitman uses the source material as a foundation, but really changes things to fit his aesthetic. It’s also completely different because of the time we are living in now compared with the time the novel was written.

Both of these routes can be used to great effect. What filmmakers need to realize is that they are not making a novel or even a play; they are making a film in which the primary storytelling method is visual. Adapting the mood, the tone, is essential and this is all done visually. There have been some amazing adaptations and some adaptations that were constricted because they tried to be something they weren’t.

Also, check out my top ten literary adaptation movies: here.


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“Never Let Me Go” Trailer

One of the last books we read in The Joshua Centre Book Club was “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. If you want to read any of the posts, you can here.

There is a new movie version of the novel coming out starring Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Keira Knightly (Pride and Prejudice). The trailer is embedded below. It’s a beautifully tragic looking little film that looks like it’s going to have a major emotional impact. What do you think of the trailer? How does it compare to the novel from the little we see?


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