Movies have been a part of our lives for more than 100 years. They came of age just before the Great Depression and provided relief from the struggles of life at that time.
While streaming has become the norm, and movie theaters are threatened (not to mention DVD and VHS sales), movies are still a major component of life’s entertainment.
This is another installment of “my favorite” things1. My purpose in sharing these lists is two-fold. First, it helps you gain a better understanding of the guy who is writing all this stuff. But I also hope it will spur you to provide your own list of favorites.
So here are my favorite movies. I’ve already mentioned American Graffiti in a previous post, so I won’t repeat it here.
But for ‘the rest of the story’:
I mentioned this movie in a post about my favorite books. While not a ‘movie’ per se – it’s actually a 12 hour long TV mini-series – I still count it among my favorite movies.
Shōgun tells the story of the rise to power and subsequent control of all Japan by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1602. In the movie, the Tokugawa character is called Yoshi Toranaga and is played by Japanese super-star Toshiro Mifune. The primary character is an English navigator named John Blackthorne, played by Richard Chamberlain. The third principal character – translator for Blackthorne and Toranaga, and love interest of Blackthorne – is Lady Toda Buntaro Mariko. The part was played by Yoko Shimada, who has become a friend of mine over the past several years.
The movie is sometimes difficult for some to follow since all the Japanese characters actually speak Japanese. While there is narration by Orson Welles and some explanation by Lady Mariko, there are still parts of Japanese culture of the period which don’t get full explanation. For this reason, I recommend that people read the book, although it is more than 1000 pages long.
Of course, because of its sheer length, I don’t watch Shōgun often. But I’ve probably watched it 15-16 times since it was released in 1980.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Like McFarland USA, below, Remember the Titans is a movie about overcoming challenges that are exacerbated by stereotypes and prejudices. Set in 1971, Remember the Titans stars Denzel Washington as Virginia high school football coach Herman Boone. Although based on true events and actual people, the movie does take some liberties with historical facts2.
That doesn’t, however, detract from the movie. The core premise is the melding of Black and white football players at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School. It also depicts the struggles of a Black football coach in the segregated atmosphere of a 1970s southern state.
Of course, the team triumphs in the end, but I enjoy watching the interaction between the players. In particular, initial animosity between the leaders of the white and Black players, Gerry Bertier (played by Ryan Hurst) and Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) was quite interesting for me. Bertier and Campbell later became fast friends in real life.
As a side note, I once taught a leadership course at the University of Louisville and I used clips of the interactions between those two characters to illustrate points. I had occasion to meet Ryan Hurst when he was in Louisville about a year ago, and I told him about using the clips. His reaction pleased me.
Sound of Music (1965)
In terms of the number of times watched, the Sound of Music (SoM) qualifies as my favorite movie. I don’t watch it nearly as often as I once did, but still watch when it comes on TV, or occasionally view my DVD copy.
For those rare individuals who have never heard of the movie, Sound of Music is based on the Rodgers & Hammerstein play, which itself is loosely based on the real life von Trapp family of Austria.
The patriarch, Captain Georg von Trapp is a retired Austrian naval officer with seven children, ranging in age from 4 to 16. Their mother had died, and the captain seeks a governess to care for them.
After several unsuccessful attempts, he engages a postulate from a nearby abbey, Fraulein Maria. The captain has been running his house like a naval ship, complete with the use of a bosun’s whistle to summon his children.
Maria bonds with the children through kindness and a sense of happiness returns to the house.
But drama awaits when Captain von Trapp is invited to join the navy of Nazi Germany.
The movie features several notable actors, including Julie Andrews as Maria and Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp. One, Angela Cartwright as daughter Brigitta, was already a familiar face. She previously appeared as Danny Thomas’ daughter, Linda, in The Danny Thomas Show and as Penny Robinson in Swiss Family Robinson.
The standout was Charmian Carr. The 21-year-old had never acted before she was cast as 16-year-old von Trapp daughter, Liesl. She was also a singer, and her duets with Christopher Plummer (Edelweiss) and Daniel Truhitte as Rolf (Sixteen Going on Seventeen) are recognized even by those who haven’t seen the movie.
Carr talked extensively about her role in the movie in her book, Forever Liesl. Except for a one hour TV musical in 1967, she never acted again after SoM. She worked as an interior designer and passed away in 2016.
McFarland USA (2015)
McFarland USA, my most recent favorite, is the story of a teacher in a small, and poor, California town who took a track team to the California State Championship.
I was first drawn to this movie because it opens with Jim White being fired from a coaching job in Boise, Idaho. I was living in Boise in that time frame, but I had never heard of the incident, and with good reason. It never happened. Mr. White never worked in Boise, but the scene was added as a dramatic opening.
Most of the kids attending McFarland High School were the children of ‘pickers’ – farm field workers of mostly Mexican descent3. The teacher, Jim White – portrayed by Kevin Costner – notices that the boys run everywhere they go. Their lack of access to transportation means they walk – or run.
But more than that, they have amazing speed and stamina – born of working in the fields.
Mr. White embarks on a effort to form a track team, something unheard of for a poor school district like McFarland.
The movie, set in the mid 1980s, has several examples of stereotyping, which lead to embarrassing situations.
My Favorite Scene
My favorite scene is one such example.
Mr. White is invited to dinner at the home of three of his runners, the Diaz brothers. After a very filling dinner of enchiladas and other Mexican family fare, Mr. White encounters Mr. Diaz in the back of his house, washing buckets.
White, in an exaggerated slow-speaking tone, asks, “Can I help you?”
Mr. Diaz replies, “No, gracias”
At that point, one of the runners, David Diaz comes out of the house.
White: “David, I’d like you to ask your father something for me.”
White: “You know what, just tell him… just tell him it was an honor to be invited into his home.”
David: “Dad, he said it was an honor to be invited into your home.”
Mr. Diaz: “Tell him I say thanks.”
White realizes in that moment that his assumption that the father couldn’t speak English was grossly misplaced.
Ultimately, the team wins the 1987 California State Cross Country championship. McFarland High School went on to win the title nine times in 14 years. Each team was coached by Jim White.
It’s an inspiring story, helped by watching Costner’s character overcome his stereotypical view of Latin people and embrace life in the rural community.
I’ve watched McFarland USA probably 20 times in the past six months and I never get tired of it.
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
Like many of my favorite movies, Mr. Holland’s Opus is the story of a person finding that his true calling is not what he expected it to be.
Glenn Holland, an aspiring musical composer played by Richard Dreyfuss, takes a job as a music teacher in a Portland, Oregon high school. Mr. Holland views the job as temporary, maybe a year or two until he can complete his symphony and achieve fame in the world of music.
Several memorable characters pass through his classes, including Louis Russ (played by Terrance Howard), the football player who needs an ‘easy’ credit to remain eligible to play. Russ demonstrates his lack of musical awareness when he asks if he can play the electric guitar … in the marching band.
Rowena Morgan (Jean Louisa Kelly) is a beautiful, talented actress and singer in school plays4. Her flirtations with Mr. Holland challenge his commitment to his marriage.
Gertrude Lang (Alicia Witt) provides, for me, one of the movie’s most memorable exchanges. Lang is having a great deal of trouble learning to play the clarinet. She is over-thinking the process.
Mr. Holland stops her and asks, “When you look in the mirror, what do you like best about yourself?”
Lang strokes her red hair and replies, “My hair.”
Mr. Holland: “Why?”
Lang: “My father always says that it reminds him of the sunset.”
Mr. Holland: “Play the sunset.”
Mr. Holland’s life is further complicated when his son is born deaf. He struggles to accept his son’s disability, as he struggles to complete his symphony. It takes some time, but his acceptance is punctuated by his learning to sign John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy for his son, in front of a full crowd of hearing-impaired children in the auditorium.
A Life Wasted?
In the end, after 30 years of teaching in the high school, the music program falls to budget cuts and Mr. Holland is forced to retire. On his last day, his wife and son steer him to the auditorium – filled with former students and their families.
One former student, Gertrude Lang, the clarinetist played as an adult by Joanna Gleason, is now the governor of the state. She talks about Mr. Holland’s life-long attempts to create a symphony to make him famous. She concludes with:
“it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
What are your favorite movies? Tell us in the comments section below, and I may feature the responses in a future post.
- I’ve also written about my five favorite apps and five favorite books.
- It is a fact of the medium that movies take liberties with some facts for entertainment purposes. It’s important that we remember that movies and imagination go hand in hand
- This is another reason I like McFarland, USA. I grew up in a rural community of southwest Idaho and many of my school friends were the children of migrant farm workers.
- Jean Louisa Kelly actually is a very talented singer and dancer. She performed all her own numbers in the movie.