All-time Top 10: Jurassic Park

I was a HUGE dinosaur kid. Some of the first movies I remember watching were the early Land Before Time movies. My cousin and I loved them so much we would pretend to be Little Foot and Cera when we would swim in our grandparents’ pool. And before I discovered Harry Potter, my favorite book series was Dinotopia, a fantasy world where dinosaurs lived on a hidden island and learned to speak. I could tell you at a very young age that the Triceratops was my favorite dinosaur and pronounce dinosaur names I had no business knowing. I. Loved. Dinosaurs.

So it’s strange that I don’t remember when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. It was released in 1993 and being three I was a little too young to see it in theaters, but by the time my dinosaur obsession kicked in, it should have been at the top of my list. I think I may have even seen the second or third movie before I saw the original. So before Jurassic World came out in 2015, I went back and watched the original trilogy.

Jurassic Park is a masterpiece. In a lot of ways, it marked the dawn of the modern blockbuster, especially due to its groundbreaking visual effects and engaging action scenes. The main characters are outstanding and entertaining to watch and gave us some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.

Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton and directed by Stephen Spielberg, Jurassic Park follows a team of paleontologists and scientists as they visit a remote island where an eccentric, wealthy businessman has figured out how to bring dinosaurs back to life. I’m sure most of you know the story, but shockingly, all hell breaks loose.

Let’s start with the visual effects. It is shocking how well the CGI in this movie holds up. There are plenty of featurettes and behind-the-scenes videos explaining how they invented the technology needed to create the dinosaurs, but a combination of real animatronics and computer-generated models literally brought dinosaurs back from extinction. There’s a reason why the movie won the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year.

The combination of these two effects are perfectly displayed in the movie’s most iconic sequence: the T-rex attack. It’s one of the greatest action sequences in cinematic history. From the moment the water ripples on the dashboard, we known something big is about to go down. The life-sized animatronic monster is terrifying and both it and the CGI version are expertly used so neither looks out of place.

The second most iconic scene uses visual effects in the same way. When Tim and Lex are on the run from a group of velociraptors, they’re followed into the resort’s kitchen. Again, Spielberg knew just how much CGI he could use and where the practical raptors would be better. And the sick triceratops? 100% real. These scenes are still just as tense and exciting today as they were 25 years ago because of the direction and the talent behind the dinosaurs.

Of course, the look of the dinosaurs could only do so much on their own. The characters’ reactions are crucial in selling the story. And what a cast Spielberg assembled. Sam Neill is delightful in his transformation from gruff scientist who hates kids to risking his life for Tim and Lex. Laura Dern is an icon and gets probably my favorite line of the whole movie: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.” And has Jeff Goldblum ever had a more iconic role? Dr. Ian Malcolm is so weird and awkward and cocky, but that Goldblum charm radiates through his entire performance. Richard Attenborough rounds out the main cast as the goofy and over-sure John Hammond.

A Spielberg movie isn’t complete with a John Williams score. In terms of iconic movie themes, no one will ever beat John Williams, and Jurassic Park is one of his best. The main theme has a beautiful sense of awe and almost a religious respect to it. I’ve always assumed it’s the music you hear when the gates of heaven open after you die. Outside of the main theme, Williams captures the mood of every scene expertly – be it joy, fear, or anything in between.

For me, all these parts – the effects, the cast and the score – all come together to create cinematic magic in the scene where Alan, Ellie and Ian see the dinosaurs for the first time. Neill and Dern give the greatest performances of shock and awe looking at an amazingly lifelike brachiosaurus while Williams’ score swells into that iconic theme.

Jurassic Park asks some big questions that are still just as relevant today as they were in the early 1990s. Corporate greed, capitalism, limitations of scientific advancement, and the ethics of what humanity can do are all present in the movie. The entire thesis of the movie can be summed up in Dr. Malcolm’s line: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In today’s world, technology advances at such a rate that we can barely keep up. Maybe we all need to sit back and think of whether we should do something just because we can.

Whether you’re seven or 97, Jurassic Park is great at any age. It’s exciting, funny, suspenseful and has a lot of heart. For a former dinosaur kid, it will always be one of my all-time top 10.

All-time Top 10: La La Land

Here’s to the fools who dream…

It took me a long time to fully realize my love of musicals. Sure, I grew up in the Disney Renaissance so most of the earliest movies I saw were musicals, but I didn’t really understand their impact as a seven-year-old. As I got older, I saw some other movie musicals, like Hairspray, Rent and the High School Musical trilogy, and even saw Wicked on stage. Again, they were fun, and I liked the songs, but I never fully appreciated them.

It wasn’t until I saw the 2012 movie version of Les Misérables that something finally clicked. The way the music told the story, the characters, the emotion, the harmonies and melodies… I was obsessed. Over the next few months, I went down a musical rabbit hole, discovering new shows, new songs, and new performers. While this eventually led to my ultimate obsession with Broadway and stage musicals, movie musicals are just as important to this art form. So in 2016 when La La Land came out and was getting a lot of awards attention, I knew I had to see it.

La La Land (2016), directed by Damien Chazelle, is a story about love, but it is not a love story. La La Land follows Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actor, as they try to break into the industry and chase their dreams. As they both feel the push and pull of success, they struggle to maintain their budding relationship.

Both Mia and Sebastian’s journeys show the hard decisions that have to be made in order to follow your dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, but she struggles in auditions – not always by her own fault, either. The directors and producers she sees don’t always give her their undivided attention or she’s interrupted in the middle of her audition. She decides to take a risk and writes a one-woman show that doesn’t go as well as she expected. She keeps getting beat down to the point where she doesn’t believe she’s good enough to succeed. This is something almost everyone can understand – we’ve all felt unworthy or not good enough to reach our goals. Mia eventually finds success thanks to some supportive nudging from Sebastian and through a producer who saw her one-woman show. Having people who believe in you, even if you don’t, can sometimes change your life.

Sebastian, on the other hand, has such lofty goals that they’re not possible to achieve in the way he wants. His ultimate dream is to open a new jazz club and somehow “save jazz.” But the club he wants isn’t for sale and he can’t hold a steady job to help him work toward that goal. An opportunity comes along that lands him in a successful band, but they’re not playing “his” style of music. Sebastian has to struggle between having financial success and doing what he really wants to do. Like Mia, Sebastian eventually finds success and opens his own club where he can perform the music he loves, but his journey took a few detours in order to get there.

In Mia’s final audition song, she sings about “the fools who dream.” Both Mia and Sebastian are dreamers, and while they both eventually succeed in reaching their goals, it comes at a cost – be it heartbreak, setbacks or jobs they’re not committed to. The “epilogue” shows what their life could have been and the possibility of a happy life together. But ultimately they both found happiness on their own through the mess they made.

La La Land is also a love story to classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, and you can really feel that influence throughout the movie’s tone, visuals, and structure. There are plenty of references to classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. With a predominately jazz-based score, La La Land even sounds like a classic musical. The epilogue and the planetarium sequences really give the score huge moments to shine.

The music in La La Land is so good at telling Mia and Sebastian’s love story. The couple’s main theme is first played by Sebastian in the restaurant, and Mia is drawn to it – hinting at a connection neither of them know is there at the time. Mia later hears the theme played at another restaurant when she’s at a dinner with her then-boyfriend. She is supposed to be meeting Sebastian, and the music reminds her where she really wants to be. Shout out to the music team for this movie – Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman), who wrote the lyrics, and Justin Hurwitz (First Man, Whiplash), who did all the composing.

There’s an old musical theater saying that says “if you can’t say it, you sing it; if you can’t sing it, you dance it.” It’s a beautiful idea that illustrate how music and dancing relate to the characters’ emotions. In the “Lovely Night” dance, Mia and Sebastian begin by talking and bantering back and forth. They clearly like each other, but when they can’t think of anything else to say, they start singing. And once they can’t sing anymore, they break out into dance. By the end of the song, it’s obvious they like each other, and their relationship begins to develop.  

And a special shout out to Mandy Moore (no, not that Mandy Moore), the choreographer, for all of these incredible dance sequences. Many of the numbers were shot in one take or made with very few cuts. The end of the opening number on the highway is one long take with dozens of performers and stunts. It’s mind-blowing to realize all the details and planning that went into just one small part of this movie. The “Lovely Night” dance is also shot in one long six-minute take. These long takes are just another homage to classic Hollywood musicals that highlight the actors’ performances.

Speaking of actors, is it even possible for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone to be unlikable? These two have such great chemistry that they’ve played love interests in THREE movies – La La Land, Crazy Stupid Love, and Gangster Squad. They play off each other so well in both the funny and serious moments. They spent weeks in rehearsals for the big dance numbers, and Ryan Gosling even learned how to play the piano for this role – that’s actually him playing on screen, not someone else.

La La Land is ultimately a story about love and balancing that love with following your dreams. It’s an absolutely gorgeous movie (just pay attention to the colors) with some incredible performances and a bittersweet ending. This is the second Damien Chazelle movie (after First Man) to make it into my all-time top 10, so I’m definitely excited to see what he does next.

All-time Top 10: Kingsman: The Secret Service

“This ain’t that kind of movie, bruv”

Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of those movies that just came out of nowhere but hit me just right. Now, it’s on my list of movies I can endlessly rewatch and fall in love with over and over again.

Kingsman was released in February 2014. I had seen a couple of the trailers and thought it looked pretty cool, but I was never that interested in spy movies. This wasn’t a Marvel or Star Wars movie that I already had an emotional connection to.

But, Kingsman just happened to come out the same weekend as Fifty Shades of Grey – a movie that I was very much against (which is a story for another time) and did not want to do well at the box office. So I brilliantly thought that going to see this new Kingsman movie would be a contribution against Fifty Shades. Kingsman ultimately came in second place to Fifty Shades in its opening weekend, but it immediately jumped to number one in my heart.

I had no idea what I was getting into with this movie, but holy cow did I love everything about it. Like I said, I’ve never been big on spy movies – James Bond, Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible have never really appealed to me that much. Kingsman, though, is a spy movie turned up to 11. More action, more blood, more cursing, more British.

Kingsman follows Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a poor kid from London, as he discovers the world of a secret spy agency. Eggsy is recruited by agent Harry Hart to replace a recently fallen spy. Eggsy has to compete against other recruits to become the next Kingsman. Meanwhile, the agents work to stop Richmond Valentine, a tech billionaire who is intent on killing millions of people across the globe in order to protect the earth and its environment. Valentine describes humanity as a virus, and believes global warming is the earth’s “fever” in response. He concocts a scheme to give everyone in the world a free SIM card that offers free internet forever – no more carrier charges or phone bills ever again. Naturally, the world sprints (no pun intended) to pick up these SIM cards, but little do they know that Valentine has the ability to control them through the cards and make them unnaturally violent.

At its heart, Kingsman is one of those odd couple kind of movies. Eggsy and Harry discuss this idea in an early scene, name-dropping My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman. Eggsy learns that becoming a Kinsman is not about fitting a specific mold, but learning to better himself and bring the skills he has into this new world. At every test, Eggsy is able to find success not because he’s doing what he’s told, but because he’s using his own talents in new ways. Sure, he learns some Kingsman tricks along the way, but he becomes more confident in his own skills throughout the movie.

Taron Egerton is the breakout star of this movie. He’s instantly likable and endearing as Eggsy and watching him enter this strange world is delightful. The supporting cast of Kingsman is ridiculous. Colin Firth as Harry Hart, Mark Strong as the Kingsman version of Bond’s Q, Merlin, and Jack Davenport (from Pirates of the Caribbean) as an unlucky agent are inspired casting as stereotypical posh Brits.

Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Valentine, who probably had more fun in this role than he’s had in a long time and really steals the show. Jackson gives Valentine a lisp, which is a little off-putting when you first hear it, but becomes menacing when it counts. Sofia Boutella is Valentine’s delightfully strange henchman Gazelle, and Michael Caine and a wild Mark Hamill cameo round out the main cast.

The action in this movie is really what sets it apart from others of the genre. It’s simultaneously beautiful and brutal. The crowning set piece is the church fight. Shot to feel like one continuous take, it’s a wild ride from start to finish and every time I watch it, I see something new that is both horrifying and incredible to look at. All the other action sequences in the movie are equally impressive. I especially love the skydiving scene – it’s so effective at building the tension and making you stress out with the characters. Every action scene really feels unique and keeps you engaged throughout the entire movie.

This movie is also hilarious. Since it’s partially a satire of spy movies, there’s a lot of self-aware and tongue-in-cheek jokes that poke fun at the genre as a whole. And it seriously has some of the best one-liners in any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of dry British humor that I can’t get enough of. You’ll never hear “Pomp and Circumstance” the same way after you see this movie, and the finale set to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Give It Up” is inspired.

Kingsman came into my life with no hype, no background knowledge, and no expectations. Maybe that’s why it hit me as hard as it did. What could have been a bland James Bond knockoff was bolstered by incredible characters, insane action, and great humor, which earns it a spot in my all-time top 10.

All-time Top 10: First Man

“That’s one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind”

First Man (2018) tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his journey to becoming the first man to step foot on the moon. Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife Janet. The movie balances the chaos and danger of the space program with the quiet tension of the Armstrongs’ home life.

I’ve found that I love this movie more and more each time I watch it. Gosling and Foy are phenomenal in their performances and really anchor the entire movie. Ryan Gosling has been around for a long time, but the more of his movies I watch, the more he becomes one of my favorite actors. He can say so much with only his facial expressions – Neil is not a talker, but you always know what he’s thinking or feeling because of Gosling. And Claire Foy is phenomenal as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown and does an incredible job here of making you understand the pressure the wife of an astronaut experienced. She’s trying to raise two sons and maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives with the ever-looming threat that her husband may go out on a mission and never come home again. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the fact that Gosling and Foy were not even nominated for Oscars for their performances.

I love the way the flight sequences were shot in this movie. Damien Chazelle places the camera so that the audience gets a first-person view, almost like virtual reality goggles or a video game. The behind-the-scenes features show that the special effects team used a massive LED screen to show the earth and moon in real-time so the actors could react to the actual visuals and it all looks amazing. And I can’t talk enough about the entire moon landing sequence. You know they’re going to make the landing, but there is still so much tension in the descent that you almost forget they were successful.

The journey to the moon contains my two favorite shots in the entire movie. The first is on the way to the moon – it’s an extreme wide shot and you just see the command module as this tiny dot flying straight across the screen. It gives the journey a magnitude and perspective on just how far they had to go. After Neil and Buzz land on the moon and have suited up to go outside, they open the lander door to see the moon for the first time. As the camera tracks out the door and enters space, the sound is sucked out along with the atmosphere – and it’s incredible. And – I missed this the first time I saw the movie – the transition to IMAX aspect ratio in that shot blows my mind at how genius it is.

I can’t talk about how much I love this movie without mentioning the amazing score. Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz are quickly becoming one of my favorite director-composer duos. I’m obsessed with the music for La La Land and the Whiplash soundtrack is great as well. The music in First Man is exciting, energetic and emotional. I especially love the intense descending motif and the love theme. I’ll keep going back to the moon landing sequence, but the music for the launch and for the descent to the lunar surface gives me chills every single time.

Neil Armstrong was not your typical hero. He was humble, thoughtful, and focused on completing the task he was assigned to do. For one of the most iconic moments in human history, it’s wild that this movie hasn’t been made already. It’s an important story to tell that reminds people just how crazy, brave, and innovative the astronauts and engineers at NASA had to be to get us to the moon. This movie is also even more fascinating when you watch the recent Apollo 11 documentary and see just how accurate the filmmakers were with these historical moments. First Man is a fascinating look at one of history’s greatest heroes – showing us who he was as a person and humanizing the man who took humanity’s greatest leap.