Usually the difference between an acclaimed critical darling and a mere movie is that the former seems important. For example, if you make a nice romantic comedy about a pair of quirky people training for a dance competition, you've just made a movie (specifically, Dirty Dancing). But if the "quirk" of the main characters is bipolar disorder, you've got Silver Linings Playbook and a truckload of awards to go with it. See, because now it's not just some dumb movie; it's delivering an important moral about living with mental illness (specifically, that the best way to recover is to immediately find another mentally ill person and begin a romance with them).
But what I find fascinating is that occasionally Hollywood will crank out a beautifully made film that is received with universal praise but whose moral is just utterly fucking bizarre. All of the films on this list are wonderful films, but that's the point: You get so distracted by the spectacle that you don't notice how freaking insane they are.
#5. Toy Story Franchise: It's Wrong to Outgrow Things
Two Academy Awards, nine total nominations, $1.8 billion in box office across three films
I know exactly what you're saying to yourself, word for word: "Come on, Wong! This is a make-believe story about sentient toys! Don't be an overthinking funshitter, you disease-ridden stenchpenis!"
Let the record show that my penis has a pleasant pine scent with citrus undertones.
The thing is, whether you know it or not, every movie is about your life. I don't care if the plot involves vampires or a space war or a lost cartoon fish trying to find its way home: The only reason you feel anything when you watch is because it applies to you. You probably don't have a Death Star to blow up, but you have seemingly overwhelming challenges to overcome -- maybe your Death Star is just a very fat bully you have to "explode" with your "fighter jet" in obedience to "a disembodied voice in your head." The reason you like watching fantasy stories is because when you look at them, you see yourself.
Pixar knows this better than anyone -- Finding Nemo isn't really about a fish; it's about parents letting their kids be kids and take risks. Cars is about how the urbanization of America killed its soul. Brave is about the survival of the mother/daughter bond through life changes, and how all little girls are bears at heart. And Toy Story is, inexplicably, about how we all need to cling to the childhood belief that inanimate objects are people. Oh, there are other little messages along the way -- the power of friendship, overcoming obstacles with teamwork, shit like that -- but the overarching theme and moral are just nuts.
Let's briefly recap all three films:
Toy Story: The cowboy doll Woody is jealous when Andy (the boy who owns him) gets a new toy, Buzz Lightyear, because Woody fears that it means Andy's tastes are changing and that he'll get left behind. The villain is Andy's neighbor, Sid, who is evil because he "tortures" his toys -- he pulls them apart and pieces them together to make new toys. That's a crime in this universe, because toys are sentient, and Sid is too stupid to realize it, even though he has never seen any evidence for that fact whatsoever and realizing it would destroy his sanity. Sid is punished for being creative with the toys and using them in a way the manufacturer never intended, while Andy is praised for "correctly" thinking his toys are real and treating them as such.
If Sid learns any lesson, it's "Don't tell adults about traumatic events because no one will believe you."
Toy Story 2: Woody discovers that Andy has been discarding broken/unwanted toys as he gets older and (again) fears that he will suffer the same fate. Woody then gets a chance to go to a toy museum, where he will live forever behind glass and never be discarded to a trash dump, but ultimately decides to go back home and hopes that Andy holds onto him as long as possible. The unconscionable horror of throwing away a toy is reinforced in a heartbreaking sequence where another doll, Jessie, talks about how her owner hit puberty and then stuffed her in a box in the dark -- the toy version of hell. The villain of the movie is an evil toy collector who sees toys only as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than sentient beings with the same rights as humans.
"Fuck you for trying to earn a living."
Toy Story 3: The kid who owns Woody and the rest is now too old for toys, which brings the equivalent of an apocalypse to the toy world. The protagonists are scattered to the wind, where they are again put into the hands of toy owners who "torture" them (in this case, toddlers who don't play with them in a way the manufacturer intended). They're all nearly incinerated at a trash dump before getting miraculously rescued and handed off to be played with by a new, younger kid. The villain: a bear who was driven insane by being cruelly discarded by his owner years earlier.
He firebombs three Build-A-Bear Workshops as retaliation in the deleted scenes.
Starting to see a theme here?
That's right -- the real villain in each of these movies is maturity. Every problem in the toys' life is caused by humans refusing to stay children, and refusing to stay in the mindset that toys are sentient and deserving of empathy. What message are we supposed to take home here? That we're too quick to discard our possessions? That we're too quick to give up old friends when we outgrow them? That we don't treat inanimate objects with enough respect? That growing up is awful? Are any of those things even remotely true?
I half think that it's all just an attempt by Disney to convince us to keep buying their merchandise well into adulthood. "You don't want those poor toys to sit abandoned on the shelf, do you?"
But strangely, this is only the second-weirdest lesson in a Pixar film. But we'll get to that in a moment.
#4. Life of Pi: If the Truth Is Difficult, Feel Free to Lie
20th Century Fox
Won four Academy Awards, nominated for seven others, $609 million box office
If you haven't seen this movie, you probably know it as "that movie about an Indian boy who for some reason winds up stranded at sea with a giant tiger." And if so, you might think I'm going to spend 500 words explaining that it's a bad idea to go canoeing with tigers. But no, that's not the problem (they love it, try it sometime). My problem is with the twist ending that totally changes the reality of the story. This twist is the entire reason the film (and the book it was based on) is famous -- it's a parable about faith and the nature of truth, and it's just so, so fucking wrong.
The film begins with a man named Pi Patel telling his life story to a reporter. He talks about how, when he was a child, his family owned a zoo, and how as a boy he struggled with his spirituality -- practicing both Christianity and Islam in a family that practiced neither. Then, during a sea voyage to transport the animals, a storm hits and sinks the ship. The only survivors are the boy and a few animals -- a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and an adult Bengal tiger. Very quickly the food chain asserts itself, and only the tiger and Pi are left on the boat -- the two are stuck on the tiny raft and have to survive together at sea for most of a year. Note that, in the book, there is also a scene in which the boy eats the tiger's shit (I'm not kidding), but it is omitted from the film. Which is too bad; it seems like they could have really utilized the 3D there.
20th Century Fox
"Goddamnit, I can't go while you watch."
Anyway, as the adult Pi tells the fantastic tale to the reporter, the events become more and more implausible -- somehow Pi catches enough food for both himself and the tiger to survive for nearly 10 months, and there is a fantastic sequence where Pi lands on a poisonous island full of weasels before he finally reaches civilization. And here is when Pi addresses the fact that his story sounds suspiciously like bullshit. Get ready for the big moral of the movie:
The adult Pi becomes very solemn and says he'll tell the "real" story. In this version, he fucks the tiger.
Ha, just kidding. In this version, there are no animals -- after the shipwreck, he is stranded on the boat with his mother, an injured sailor, and the ship's French cook, who is a dangerous scumbag. The cook kills everyone but Pi, who manages to overcome the cook and kill him. Pi then survives on human flesh until the boat reaches shore. Pi asks the reporter which version of the story he prefers. He answers, "The one with the tiger." And Pi says, "And so it goes with God."
20th Century Fox
Somehow the movie doesn't end with a freeze frame as "Eye of the Tiger" plays. Best Director my ass.
Meaning if you have no way of knowing the truth, then it's perfectly logical to just go with whatever version of it makes you a happier and better person. Which is fine, I suppose, aside from the fact that this is the method by which the powerful have been subjugating and brainwashing society for thousands of years.
I'm not even talking about religion here, fedoras -- I'm talking about the general idea of the educated and powerful inventing a simplistic story to get the rest of us filthy commoners to go along with them, and the powerful knowing we'll swallow it as long as it's more comfortable than the truth. "We didn't go to war to control resources, we did it for freedom."
"We didn't have time to actually write a mission statement. Just toss out some Braveheart lines; they love that shit."
The problem, obviously, is that we don't get to make the choice about which version we hear. Pi wasn't going to tell the truth -- he was pushed into it. He makes the same arrogant assumption that drives every cynical politician and Sunday school teacher: "Here, have this baby food -- the truth is too spicy a meatball for the likes of you."*
*Please don't imagine the person pronouncing "spicy meatball" like Jim Carrey in The Mask, as that will undermine the seriousness of my message.
"But you're comparing his harmless adventure story to harsh geopolitical truths every informed citizen should know! His point is that it's pointless to know the awful truth if the awful truth doesn't help you!"
But even that is a toxic idea. The thing about the truth is that it has a way of leaking into your brain -- ask any fundamentalist Christian kid who was taught in church that science is split on evolution, then went to college and got steamrollered by reality. Ask him if he's still a Christian. Happiness based on a friendly lie is a fucking house of cards.
#3. Flight: Cocaine Fixes Everything
Nominated for two Academy Awards, $162 million box office
I'm just going to say it: This movie has an inspirational cocaine-using montage in which the protagonist successfully uses cocaine to overcome a personal challenge. It's shot and edited just like a training montage, only instead of training, he's doing cocaine. This film is not a comedy:
That's from Flight, the 2012 drama that, based on the ads, you probably thought was a powerful character piece about a talented but tortured pilot dealing with substance abuse. And it is, sort of -- the substance the main character is abusing is alcohol, and this film is about how he continually defeats that demon.
I am not shitting you.
The clip above is from near the end of the film, but this is absolutely the running theme of the movie. In the opening scene, Denzel Washington's character wakes up in a hotel room with a lady after a night of drinking -- the opening shot is of him reaching over to a table covered in liquor bottles:
He has an early morning flight, so, to perk himself up, he does a few lines of coke:
And it totally works! He strides out of the room while inspirational music plays him down the hall:
He then climbs into the cockpit of his plane, and what follows is the key scene you saw in the trailer: The plane malfunctions, and only an amazing, heroic maneuver from a coked-up Denzel saves everyone on board.
The rest of the plot involves the investigation of the crash. The authorities want to drop the hammer on the protagonist for flying while drunk and high, and Denzel's defense -- which the movie agrees with -- is that he put on an amazing flying performance that no other pilot in the world could have matched. Thanks, apparently, to cocaine.
In typical style for addiction dramas like this, Denzel's character falls in and out of alcoholism, swearing off the booze and then relapsing, giving the lead all sorts of opportunities for award-bait scenes in which he wrestles with his personal demons. But throughout the film, the true antagonist is the evil government investigators trying to ruin his career for the completely victimless crime of flying an airliner while under the influence. This sets up one of the most amazingly insane fucking sequences I have ever seen in a film.
First, Denzel's friends are able to successfully suppress the toxicology report that showed he was both drunk and high when the plane crash occurred -- this is treated as a victory, and it's all thanks to his allies in the pilot's union passionately fighting for the right for their pilots to drink and do coke on the job. Finally, they schedule a hearing, and all Denzel needs to do is nail his testimony and he'll be back in the air, snorting coke off a 747's control panel. But the night before the hearing, he succumbs to the evils of alcohol, drinking dozens of tiny bottles of hotel room liquor. Denzel's union representatives find him drunk on the floor the morning of the hearing, so they do the only responsible thing: They call Denzel's drug dealer to come cure him ... with cocaine.
The same cocaine that led his dealer to believe ponytails were a good life choice.
And cure him he does. That triggers the inspirational sequence embedded at the top, in which John Goodman does the narcotics "training montage" that cures the hero's drunkenness/hangover. And it works perfectly -- Denzel goes in front of the hearing and knocks it out of the park, the coke having given his brain the kind of sharpness and clarity that earlier allowed him to do the incredible plane-saving maneuver. Yay, cocaine!
The only thing that trips him up is a crisis of conscience, because the evil lady running the hearing threatens to pin the blame on another crew member unless Denzel confesses. He does, and he goes to jail. And throughout the adventure, the cocaine never causes him a single problem -- the only problems in his life are caused by alcohol, and the stodgy authority figures trying to stop him from doing cocaine.
"You don't want to end up a loser like me ... saving countless lives due to enhanced narcotic awareness."
Holy shit, it's no wonder producers went nuts for this script -- this is like the gospel Hollywood lives by. One of the Oscar nominations was for the screenplay and I'm just picturing a studio exec reading it with a single tear rolling down his cheek. "Yes ... finally someone understands our forbidden love! Kiss me right in the sinuses, Cocaine!"