Movie List

This is a list of my favorite films and television series.


Battle of Algiers. This 1966 French film is about the Algerian Revolution of the mid-1950s. The entire film is a struggle between the French military, wanting to maintain order in the French colony of Algeria, and the National Liberation Front (FLM), looking to overthrow the French government and expel the French colonists from the country. Its highly realistic portrayal of counterinsurgency  made this film a required showing at the Pentagon slightly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Indeed, its depiction of troubled  young men being converted and recruited to a violent revolutionary movement is frighteningly relevant. This film is about politics at its most desperate and violent. The escalation of violence on both sides, with ferocious reprisal, attacks on police officers, and propaganda to win the hearts and minds of the public make this picture must-watch for 21st Century Americans interested in the Global War on Terrorism.

Breaking Bad. For me, this is the only tv show that gets better season after season. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a Macbethian character, who subtly evolves from a nice, nerdy, and timid high school chemistry teacher to a murderous, power-hungry, and wealthy druglord. Manufacturing and selling drugs used to be a means to support his family, as he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But he comes to love the power. “You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.” Unlike Jesse, his partner, Walter never uses the drugs he makes. But it’s the drug business that corrupts his soul.

Citizen Kane. When I first saw this when I was 16, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about it. But as I’ve matured, and advanced my career and sharpened my ambitions, I relate to this film more and more. No other film I know captures the psychological impact of childhood on a person’s life, his drive, motivations, actions. Kane seemed like he had it all, yet dies a lonely old man whose last thoughts were about some damned sled.

The Dark Knight. Not much really needs to be said about the Dark Knight, but I will say that the psychological depth of Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Dent is profound. I was struck by the conversation that Alfred and Bruce had regarding the bandits in Burma: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” That some people are so completely unpredictable and unreasonable (that is, act with no particular reason) is truly frightening for an ordered society.

Fargo. I think this is the best Coen Brothers film. The characters are so rich: they’re funny, sinister, lovable, pathetic, pitiable, and believable. The dialogue is A+ and the story is gripping. Marge Gunderson is one of my favorite heroines of all time. I loved her monologue at the end as she was driving away in her squad car with the villain in the backseat, glaring at him through the mirror: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

The Fog of War. This is a documentary about the life of Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. To me, this film is about the limits of human reason. McNamara was an A+ student, top of his class at Berkeley, then Harvard Business School. He was the first person that didn’t have the surname of Ford to serve as president of the Ford Motor Company. He was one of the “Best and the Brightest”, a real whiz kid. What he lacked, however, was judgment of impersonal forces. He embodies the technocratic mindset, which assumes that every social, political, or economic problem can be broken-down into manageable and manipulable pieces. This film could also have the sub-title, “The Apology of Robert S McNamara” – his story is a lesson in humility for us all.

The Gathering Storm / Into the Storm. These two HBO films trace Winston Churchill’s rise from his self-proclaimed “Wilderness Years”, as a political outcast in the House of Parliament throughout the 1930s, to a trusted wartime adviser, then to the top-spot as Prime Minister during the Second World War, and finally to the victorious loser of an election during the final days of the war he had won. These biopics are great studies in leadership. When do you stick to your principles, when do you tow the party line? How do you persuade people? What should be the limits of your power? I’ve watched each probably over 2o times, and still love them.

The Godfather. The Godfather is a rich story on many levels. I learn something new every time I watch it – usually once or twice a year – and my opinion evolves as I grow. I come to appreciate it more and more. Now, at the age of 28, this film to me is a metaphor for the story of many immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century, both good and bad. Vito Andolini, from Corleone, Sicily, becomes as a boy at Ellis Island Vito Corleone. In 1887, when my great-great-great grandfather Hindrik Uuldriks immigrated to the US from the Netherlands, his name was changed to Henry Uldricks – crisper, cleaner, more American sounding. Vito brought with him to America the values of tribal Sicily: loyalty, patriarchy, cunning, and vengeance. But taken to their most extreme logical conclusion, those values become self-destructive and wreak havoc on a family, and ultimately become a threat to civil society.

Hearts of Darkness. This documentary is about the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The production of that film has become legendary in its complexity and on the personal toll it took on Coppola. Hearts of Darkness is great because it allows you to see a man completely exacerbated, at his final tether, attempting to manage the elements and forces of a enormous project. Marlon Brando, costing $1 million a week for three weeks of shooting, for instance, shows up not having read the book the film is based upon, he’s overweight, and constantly argues with Coppola over his role, not to mention he walks off set when he’s through acting for the day. Coppola’s genius shines through in his improvisations and his tenacity in completing the final product.

It’s a Wonderful Life. You never know what you have until its gone. In this ultimate feel-good movie, Jimmy Stewart becomes America’s small-town hero in the character of George Bailey. Harry Truman remarked that if he and Bess had a son, they’d want him to be like George Bailey. Every time I watch this – once or twice during Christmas – I always think about my life and the people whose lives I’ve touched and vice versa. It makes you appreciate what you have.

John Adams (HBO Series). This is the best historical production ever made. It seems today that many series use historical people or events to create the pretense of historicity in a show that is simply good-looking wealthy people having sex, plotting against, and finally killing each other. But that’s the way it was back then!, some people say, justifying entertainment that appeals to our most carnal appetites. I’m thinking The Borgias and The Tudors. That’s one of the reasons why HBO’s John Adams is so good and refreshing and important. It tells the story of early America without the fluff and nonsense. Like John Adams himself, it doesn’t pander to the crowd. I love that the cast isn’t attractive, that George Washington is suffering with dental problems, that the delegates to the Second Continental Congress are sweating their butts off in the Philadelphia summer while debating independence, and that Adams’ worst qualities – his insecurities and temper and arrogance – sometimes overcome him. My only substantive complaint is how Hamilton is portrayed, as an ambitious schemer. But he and Adams became rivals, so maybe that’s how the producers wanted it. Nevertheless, I’ve learned a lot from this series and am still enthralled when I watch it.

A Man for All Seasons. This 1966 film is about the relationship between Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII, who wants More to approve his divorce which is forbidden by the Catholic Church. Paul Scofield’s Oscar-winning role of More is one of the most graceful, eloquent, and polished performances in cinema. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to sign-off on Henry’s divorce. But he couldn’t betray his conscience and his principles. I often think of Sir Thomas More when I hear people argue principle vs pragmatism when debating politics.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. An old John Ford masterpiece, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin, this film is about civilizing and democratizing the West. Indeed, it’s about civilization and democracy itself. Liberty Valance, played by Marvin, is a sadistic thug, terrorizing a small Western frontier town and enthralling the townsfolk. Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, a tragic Ajax-like figure, is the only person keeping Liberty from completely tyrannizing that town. Then comes along Ransom Stoddard, Jimmy Stewart, an idealistic Eastern lawyer, who brings law, order, and education. He partners with the press, which is occasionally cowed by Liberty, and attempts to civilize the town. The story becomes the thing of legend, like the founding myth of Plato’s Republic.

Pulp Fiction. This is Tarantino’s best. It’s vulgar, violent, but wickedly fun. Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece of dialogue, at the time a new form of storytelling that has been mimicked but not quite replicated. I first saw this when I was 15 or so and still have a great time when I watch it today.

Raging Bull. This is my favorite Scorsese film. When I was younger it was Goodfellas, but as I’ve grown older this is it. Jake Lamotta, in Robert DeNiro’s best role, is the raging bull, a violent and volatile and clumsy bull in a china shop. His jealously is the thing of Othello’s, setting his world and that of those around him ablaze. And its always the most simple and innocent of events that trigger it. That’s what makes Raging Bull so good: no matter how high Lamotta climbs and succeeds, his worldview will always be projected through the lens of his pathetic insecurities.

Rear Window. My favorite Hitchcock. North by Northwest, Rebecca, and Vertigo are close seconds,  but I will still never forget the first time I saw Rear Window as a freshman in college. My friend and I watched it on my computer and were literally on the edge of our seats, full of tension and suspense. Watching Hitchcock is such a great reminder that you don’t need blood and guts and millions of dollars in special effects and computer graphics to scare the audience. No one has understood and played with the emotions and psychology of the audience better than Hitchcock, and I believe that Rear Window does that best.

The Right Stuff. This is about the courageous pilots who voluntarily participated in the risky test flight program which eventually turned into Project Mercury. Particularly moving was the stress that their wives and family endured while they were off training and flying in unproven spacecrafts. There is oftentimes a tragic price for the scientific and technological advancement of civilization.

Schnidler’s List. While this is far from Spielberg’s most popular film, I do believe it’s his best, and it’s my favorite of his (probably tied with Raiders of the Lost Ark). It is at once one of the most horrifying and inspiring films I’ve ever seen. Amon Goth, played by Ralph Fiennes, is a monster if there ever was one. What made him so evil was that he was so nonchalant, so as a matter-of-fact, banal, in his brutality. But the film is also deeply inspiring because even in the most horrific conditions imaginable, which Spielberg draws out masterfully, the human spirit survives.

The Social Network. It’s fascinating how the genesis of a world-changing idea was really an attempt to get attention from a girl. More than any movie I know, the Social Network shows us the process of innovation. I think there’s a huge misnomer, especially in political and media circles, that you can invent the next big thing by getting dozens of people with sparkling resumes and impressive credentials in a room, giving them millions, even billions, of dollars, and telling them to create something. Innovation happens more often that not by people who love just tinkering around with their computer or in their workshop and by people who are kind of unimpressive but want to be impressive, by people who want attention. The human dynamics and what they tell us about the different stratified layers in American society in this film are top-notch.

There Will Be Blood. This may be my favorite movie of all-time and may be my favorite performance in Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of oil-man Daniel Plainview. In the beginning, you like Plainview. He’s hard-working, efficient, runs a tight shop, and has a softspot for a little boy. But as the forces of commerce clash with the forces of religion, there will indeed be blood. The confrontations between Daniel and Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano, are thing of subtle hatred. As they both continue to accrue power and money, their souls become corrupted. And I must say that Upton Sinclair, the author of the book Oil!, on which the film was based, was violently anti-capitalist and -religious, so of course capitalism is portrayed as vicious and destructive and organized religion is seen as manipulative, exploitative, and a “superstition”, as Plainview calls it. I certainly cannot agree with that, but I still enjoy seeing the most extreme tendencies of capitalism and religion.

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