5. A Man For All Seasons
This adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play is memorable, well-acted, entertaining and historically interesting. It’s a true-story, historical tale about probably the most legendary renaissance man who ever lived: Sir Thomas More. When More stands up to King Henry VIII and refuses to endorse his attempts at divorce and remarriage, a battle of ethical wits ensues between those motivated by principle and those motivated by greed and desire. The themes explored are ones completely unexplored in today’s films. The true-history plotline is educational as well as entertaining. This is a perfect, though mildly fictionalized introduction to Sir Thomas More, one of the most influential figures in the Renaissance, and certainly one of the most famous Englishmen to ever live.
Another play adaptation of a true story from jolly old England, this one a good deal earlier. It’s about the political rivalry between Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry II. This film’s main selling point is Peter O’Toole vs. Richard Burton, two of the tip-top notchest actors ever to grace the screen. Whether or not you care about the history, this film is a legendary actor vs. actor duel set in medieval England and it’s high-caliber drama. Any inaccuracies in the particulars don’t outweigh the truth of the story.
3. Doctor Zhivago
The famous Russian epic hasn’t lost any of its greatness. Omar Sharif is in his swarthy prime here (you could drive a truck through the cleft in his chin) and he’s such a good actor. The color and cinematography are unmatched, changing with the film’s thematic movements. Any film that proposes to take you through a century or so of Russian history is going to be taxing but Doctor Zhivago pays of. It should be noted though that this film is long and depressing, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to quit watching it (it’s that good) so only start it if you’re prepared to finish it.
2. The Last Emperor
The very last Emperor of China was confined to his palace in the Forbidden City for the entirety of his formative years, exiled as a young man and imprisoned by the Communist party. His life was shaped entirely by the political realities of his country and his story is breathtaking, sad, romantic and fascinating. The film tracks the entirety of his life from birth to isolation to exile to captivity. It’s a drama that, using the life of its principle character, is able to chart the history of the Chinese cultural revolution through human eyes. The story wisely zeroes in on this Emperor, playing up the strangeness of his life and how the political upheavals of his country turn his world upside-down. The film’s greatest achievement is that it successfully makes you invested in the trajectory of China, and by the end after so many changes have taken place, you feel the shock of seeing one’s homeland completely made over in a new image.
The set design, costumes and cinematography are unmatched. I have never seen a film more careful to preserve historical accuracy and really put you into the time its set in. Add that to the fact that this movie spans the period of a man’s entire life and you’ll begin to get an idea of the scope. The Last Emperor is perhaps the greatest historical epic ever made and one that deserves a chunk of your streaming subscription, though it would be worth ordering it on Blu Ray to fully take in the gorgeous cinematography.
1. Nowhere in Africa
This is another film that consistently makes my all-time top 5. It’s a German movie that took the Best Foreign Language Academy Award (which everybody cares about) in 2001. The story is about a family of Jews who escape Nazi Germany before the Holocaust breaks out and moves to Kenya to work a farm and scrape what living they can. The film’s drama is an excellent blend of internal family strife, politics and class struggles. Naturally, life is a bit more difficult in Kenya than in Germany and the family has to struggle to survive.
What is really special about this film is how it portrays the sensation of westerners coming to live in Africa. Anyone who’s gone to live in Africa for any period of time will resonate immediately with Regina, the young girl, who embraces all the beauty of the land and the people. Her relationship with their cook, Ouwor represents a theme common to most movies about Africa: the salvation Africa represents for the wandering Western soul. There is something intangible about Africa that represents, not a wild wasteland, but a refuge. On the surface, this story is about refugees from the Third Reich, but the film is really about refugees from the soulless West learning to know and love what is good, learning the value of family and the realities of life: both joy and sorrow. No continent is more celebrated in film and books for its beauty and its people and Nowhere in Africa explores the spiritual significance of Africa better than any film before it or since.
It’s shot very traditionally, without much attention given to modern tropes. This is a film that feels like it could have been made in 1965 (in technicolor), and that’s a good thing. Post-Titanic epic historical dramas have had a tendency to overdo things, but Nowhere in Africa is appropriately subtle, though no less stunning. It lets its setting do the wowing, rather than feeling the need to spice up scenes with too-vivid color correction or set design. It’s real-life and appropriate.
This is the film Out of Africa should have been. Here, Africa itself is a character rather than just a pretty backdrop for soap-opera style drama. It’s about the state of peoples’ souls, charting what they’re living for and why, rather than just their physical or emotional well-being. “Why do we live?” “Where is home?” “Who are we?” “What defines us as people?” It’s a film that pits its characters against the biggest questions and challenges of existence and successfully brings them in to land. Africa has a way of bringing existential themes to bear on present reality, and thus it succeeds in exploring those themes without resorting to arthouse obtuseness. It’s moving in a way no other film has ever accomplished and one of the most profound films I have ever seen.