10 Natural Disasters – And the Best Movies Depicting Them

Movies have been showing disasters almost from the inception of the film camera. Thomas Edison had a team that managed to get onto Galveston Island and record the devastation following the 1900 Cat 4 hurricane that destroyed much of the city. For narrative films, in 1913 there was a depiction of the last days of Pompeii, and a comet causes widespread destruction in 1916’s The End of the World. With the increasing sophistication of special effects, and now digital effects, filmmakers can convincingly show disasters as part of their movies. Below are listed ten natural disasters, and my choice for the best movies to depict them. (I’ll include some honorable mentions as well.) Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

1) Flood: The Wave (2015)

According to the Bible, God promised Noah never to destroy the whole world again in a flood. But that hasn’t stopped parts from being washed away. The Wave is a Norwegian film about the collapse of the side of a fjord that sends a massive wall of water down the inlet towards a city. As the preamble of the film states, the movie’s based on past events that will likely again happen in the future. Click here to read my full review of this film. (Honorable Mention: The Impossible)

2) Hurricane: The Hurricane (1937)

This is the oldest movie to make this list, but there are reasons for its inclusion. Foremost, it was directed by a Hollywood legend, John Ford. Also, special effects probably became an Academy Award category because of this film along with San Francisco a year earlier. (The award was added for 1938.) While the main story of a Polynesian native and his wife (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour, slipping into a sarong for the first time) being persecuted by the island’s governor (Raymond Massey) is pretty standard, the climatic storm is intense even viewed with today’s eyes, as you can see in this clip. (Honorable Mention: The Perfect Storm)

3) Plague: Contagion (2011)

Plagues have had devastating impacts on humans. The Black Death in the 14th Century killed 50 million, or 60% of Europe’s population, and the 1918 Influenza pandemic killed between 20-40 million worldwide, more than died in the four years of World War 1 leading up to the outbreak. For Contagion, Steven Soderbergh assembled a huge cast to populate this story of another worldwide pandemic. Along with depicting the plague and its effects, the movie is also a mystery story that slowly reveals the origin of the disease and its spread. My full review. (Honorable Mention: Outbreak)

4) Tornado: Into The Storm (2014)

In the age of storm chasers and compact video cameras, it’s hard to remember that tornadoes were once the rarest weather event caught on film. Now you can watch hours of them on YouTube. Likewise, visual effect twisters have come a long way from the 35 foot muslin tube around a chicken-wire frame used for the twister in The Wizard of Oz. While most people might choose my Honorable Mention, for me the best Tornado movie is Into The Storm. The film uses (for the most part) the found footage motif to assemble the story of an outbreak of storms that decimates a Midwestern city over the course of a few hours. Click here to read my full review. (Honorable Mention: Twister)

5) Earthquake: San Andreas (2015)

I could have selected San Francisco, another granddaddy of the disaster genre, with its depiction of the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, I chose San Andreas because, different from many disaster movies, it gives its main characters intelligence. While it’s thrilling, it could also be used as a public service announcement of what to do during a quake. Much of the action is over the top, especially with the number of high rise buildings that fall like dominos, though that’s not completely out of the question. The Millenium Tower in San Francisco has sunk a foot and a half since it opened 8 years ago, and it has tilted 2 inches to the northwest. It’s located in an area where the ground could liquefy during a major quake, so San Andreas might be prescient. My full review. (Honorable Mention: 1936’s San Francisco)

6) Volcano: Volcano (1997)

This disaster has an overabundance of dishonorable mention movies, including the geographically-challenged Krakatoa, East of Java, the Irwin Allen disaster of a disaster movie, When Time Ran Out, and the 2014 embarrassment Pompeii. 1997 saw two volcanic movies released, Dante’s Peak (with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton) and Volcano (with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche). Neither are great, but I’m choosing Volcano because it has a cockeyed comic edge that helps you forgive the stereotypical characters and ham-fisted directing. Dante’s Peak, on the other hand, is deadly serious. Neither film erupted at the box office, but Volcano did have the one of the best movie poster tag lines ever: “The Coast Is Toast.” (Honorable Mention: 1961’s The Devil at 4 O’Clock)

7) Famine: Distant Thunder  aka Ashani Sanket (1973)

Famine is not a theme that is dealt with often in movies in North America or Europe. About the only time its possibility is faced is in science fiction, as seen in the honorable mentions. But in other places on the globe, famine is an immediate concern. Distant Thunder was made in 1973 by one of the greats of the Indian film industry, Satyajit Ray. Set in the middle of World War II, it focuses on the newly installed leader of a village in India, and on his wife. A famine grips the area and reaches catastrophic proportions. While the leader seeks to maintain his privileged position, his wife seeks to help the victims of the famine. (Honorable mentions: Interstellar, Soylent Green)

8) Climate Change: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

One problem with depicting climate change is that it happens gradually. Yet the effects are there to be seen in warmer average temperatures, more intense weather events, and changes in water levels. The best movie on this subject would be An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which has a sequel being released later this year: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. But we’re not dealing with documentaries here. So while climate change is referenced in movies like Interstellar and Into the Storm, the narrative film that focused on climate change was The Day After Tomorrow. Disaster specialist Roland Emmerich put climate change on fast forward and postulated what would happen if the change, leading to a new ice age, occurred in weeks instead of gradually. While it’s a popcorn movie entertainment, it’s worth remembering that it came out the year before Hurricane Katrina and 8 years before Hurricane Sandy. Where we used to talk about the storm of the century, we’re now down to the storm of the decade. (Another reason for choosing it: Al Gore used a clip from the opening sequence of Day After Tomorrow in his film)

9) Asteroid/Meteor Impact: tie – Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (2012) and These Final Hours (2013)

There have been extinction-level events caused by asteroids or meteors, but not since man came on the scene. The Tunguska Event in Siberia in 1908 was the largest in recorded history, caused by an object estimated to have been 200 to 600 feet in size. Rather than impact, it blew up in the air with the force of 10-15 megatons – about 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima A-bomb – and flattened 830 square miles of trees in an uninhabited area of Siberia. That’s large enough to destroy New York City and much of the surrounding area. But there are objects out there that are measured in miles. If they hit us, that would be the end. Two movies in 1998 – Armageddon and Deep Impact – had astronauts saving the world by breaking up the asteroid, but the fallacy of both movies is that there’d be a lengthy warning of the approaching object that would allow a mission to be launched. Instead, it’s likely we’d only have a short time to prepare for the end. Seeking a Friend… and These Final Hours both deal with that eventuality, though from different perspectives. Seeking a Friend… is pre-impact and follows Steve Carell trying to help Kiera Knightly get home to England before the end. It treats the situation as black comedy. These Final Hours is an Australian film set after the impact with a firestorm wave sweeping around the world. In the twelve hours before destruction reaches Australia, a ne’er-do-well discovers his humanity by helping a young girl separated from her parents. (Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

10) Miscellaneous Catastrophe: The Children of Men (2003)

Films have presented disaster in many massive ways: a solar flare microwaving the Earth (Knowing); the disruption of the magnetic field (The Core); the liquefaction of the center of the earth causing catastrophic movement of the continents (2012). But Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel, has the world thrown into apocalyptic disarray because no children have been born in over two decades. England has become a dystopia where immigrants are herded into ghettos while society slides towards oblivion. But then a man (Clive Owen) is recruited by his estranged wife (Julianne Moore) to shepherd a young African woman out of England to meet a ship filled with scientists. The catch is the young woman is pregnant. This movie was sabotaged in the theaters by one of the worse trailers ever, but it’s a powerful film with scenes that stay with you long after the movie ends. (Semi-honorable mention: If you haven’t seen The Core, it’s worth a shot. While the premise is ridiculous, its cast is filled with exceptionally good actors and it has a gonzo sense of humor that serves it well.)

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10 Best Movies That Touch On The Afterlife

It’s a theme that has occupied man from the dawn of civilization: what comes next? And if there is a “next” what’s it like. In fiction, the afterlife has appeared in stories for almost as long as there have been stories, such as Orpheus descending into the netherworld to rescue his love Eurydice. Dante tried to envision the Medieval Catholic view of judgment and the three-tiered afterlife in his Divine Comedy. Charles Dickens touched on it in his popular “A Christmas Carol” with its story of a second chance to change fate. There have been plenty of movies with afterlife themes since the creation of the cinema. Many of them have been bad or mediocre, but a few have handled the subject with insight or humor or heart-tugging drama. The following, in no particular order, are my choices for the best of the genre.

Warning: It’s unavoidable to have spoilers here since with some of these films the afterlife aspect is tied in with the climax of the film.

Heaven Is For Real (2014)

 

Sadly, the words “Christian” and “Movie” rarely are combined with “Good.” Too many are painfully simplistic with stick characters while some try to scare people into belief, such as the “Left Behind” series. Heaven Is For Real avoids those pitfalls and does a decent job communicating honest faith. Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly play the parents of a young boy who goes through a serious illness. When he recovers, he begins to describe visiting Jesus in Heaven during the illness. The movie doesn’t gloss over the struggles the family has, especially for Kinnear’s character who’s a minister having a crisis of faith. It likely helped that the movie was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask).

Field Of Dreams (1989)

 

“Is this Heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” “Iowa? I could have sworn this was Heaven.” Existential philosophy meets baseball, and magic is made. Through the filter of baseball the movie deals with the connections between our lives and the lives of those who have gone before us. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) spends the movie thinking he’s helping others, only to discover at the end he’s helped himself reconcile with his father. One interesting side note: Doc Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (played by Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley) was a real person. There were some minor changes made – his lone game was in 1905, rather than the end of the 1922 season as stated in the film – but the stories about Doc Graham in the movie are based on interviews with people who actually knew him.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

 

What if you meet your soul mate after he’s dead? That’s the conundrum at the heart of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1900, the young widow Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) rents an oceanfront cottage only to discover it’s haunted by the previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). At first they’re antagonistic, but then it becomes growing respect and interdependent. Then a mistake drives them apart. But years later, when she’s old and frail, the Captain returns. When Mrs. Muir passes from this life, she’s freed from her broken-down body and we see her spirit, young and beautiful again. The afterlife is where they can experience together the joy that was denied them on Earth. That’s a decent description of Heaven.

Between Two Worlds (1944)

 

The play “Outward Bound” premiered on Broadway in 1925 and ran for 144 performances. It was filmed in 1930 with much of the original cast, including Leslie Howard in the lead role. The remake in 1944 was retitled Between Two Worlds and it incorporated WWII into the story. The main role went to John Garfield, though the supporting cast featured many outstanding Warner Brothers contract players, including Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, and Edmund Gwen. The story deals with several Londoners who are killed in an air raid and then awaken on an ocean liner on their way to either Heaven or Hell. Their stories are told in flashback. It is a product of its age, with the emphasis on judgment and fear of damnation. One interesting sidenote: the original version’s star Leslie Howard had volunteered for the British Army after the war started. It’s believed he was on an assignment for British Intelligence when a plane he was on, bound for Lisbon, was shot down by the Luftwaffe. Howard along with everyone else on board was killed, the year before Between Two Worlds came out.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

 

Like Between Two Worlds there’s an element of judgment and damnation in What Dreams May Come, but it also incorporates an element of grace and reconciliation. With the death of Robin Williams, this movie has become quite poignant. It’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who’d had a hand in 16 episodes of the classic “Twilight Zone” as well as numerous novels and short stories that were adapted as movies (including Duel, I Am Legend, and Stir of Echoes). Williams plays a doctor whose two children die in an accident. Later the doctor also dies and awakens in a Heaven that’s created from his favorite painting done by his artist wife. He meets two helpers as he adapts to Heaven, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Leona (Rosalind Chao). Later he discovers that they are the spirits of his two children. They chose how he’d see them based on offhand comments he’d made to them. But in an echo of Orpheus, Williams must leave Heaven and negotiate his way through Hell to save his wife (Annabella Sciorra) who has committed suicide in despair after losing her entire family and been condemned to Hell. The movie won an Oscar for its special effects including the painted Heaven (with wet paint), other visions of paradise that look like Maxfield Parish paintings, and a Hell straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Ghost (1990)

 

Ghost could be viewed as Dante lite. When you die, you go towards the light, get dragged to the depths, or get stuck in between for a while. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin gave the audience a powerful love story – one that turned pottery making into an erotic exercise. But when Sam (Patrick Swayze) is shot in a robbery, he forgoes going to the light to stay close to his love Molly (Demi Moore). The life-and-death drama and some truly scary scenes are balanced by Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning comedic turn as a medium who discovers she’s not as fake as she thought. Ghost became the worldwide box office champ of 1990, and such success guaranteed it would be parodied. However, it retains its power, and the ending gives an affirming and deeper view of Heaven than most movies. As Sam finally walks toward the light, his last words to his love Molly are, “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you.” That’s a desire for many people.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

 

1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a good movie in its own right and could have qualified for this list, except that this remake which is superior. You have a script co-written by Elaine May (with Warren Beatty) along with an uncredited polish by the legendary Robert Towne. It became the 5th highest grossing movie of 1978. Along with co-writing the film, Beatty also produced, co-directed (with Buck Henry) and starred in this comedic fantasy about a saxophone-playing pro-football quarterback for the LA Rams who’s spirit gets pulled out of his body just before a serious accident by an overzealous angel (Henry). After an extended and hilarious search the head angel, Mr. Jordan, finds a millionaire who’s just died who’s body becomes a temporary vessel for Beatty’s soul until Jordan can find a suitable athletic body as a permanent placement. The cast is incredible, with Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, and James Mason as Mr. Jordan. Like Ghost, the movie turns on Beatty’s connection with his love Christie that transcends his move to other bodies. Is love a glimpse of the eternity of Heaven?

Always (1989)

 

Steven Spielberg remade one of his favorite movies, the Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, but switched the story from World War II to a contemporary setting with aviators battling forest fires. Richard Dreyfus’ hotshot pilot dies while making a water drop. He meets a Heavenly messenger who gives him an assignment – help the pilot who has replaced him to succeed. It turns out he also has to help his beloved (Holly Hunter) move on as well. The movie was noteworthy as the final film appearance by Audrey Hepburn as the Heavenly Hap. Always is the opposite of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait because rather than undying love, the lesson here is you must let go of what was in order to be ready for the eternal. As Dreyfus’ character says near the end, “I know now, that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.” In Always, holding onto what was corrupts and ruins our good memories.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

 

“I see dead people…They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” M. Night Shyamalan created a sensation with his first movie – unfortunately it was downhill from there. But The Sixth Sense remains a fascinating story of spirits caught in limbo and the young boy who can see them. It’s one of Bruce Willis’ best performances, and one of the best twist endings ever put on film, though when you know the see the movie again you see the clues salted through the script. It actually expands on the lesson of Always. To break free and move on, the dead must stop seeing only what they want to see. Their holding on creates a delusion in which they remain – they are truly haunted. The Sixth Sense would have been the top grossing movie of 1999 except for a certain movie called Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

 

This is the second Bruce Joel Ruben screenplay on this list, and it’s quite different – and much more powerful – than Ghost. Strangely enough, both films were release in the same year. However it took 10 years for Ladder to get made, even though it was acclaimed as the best screenplay in Hollywood that hadn’t been filmed. That changed when Adrian Lyne chose to direct it after doing the hits Flashdance, 9½ Weeks, and Fatal Attraction. In Ladder Jacob Singer is a soldier wounded in Vietnam. Fast-forward to 1975 and he’s now a postal carrier in New York who’s separated from his first wife and family. Haunted by the death of his youngest son, Jacob finds his grasp of reality threatened by increasingly bizarre experiences and horrifying visions that revolve around his experience in the war. The movie wasn’t very successful when it was released, different from Ghost, but it became a cult hit and was a major influence on other movies. The cast was headed by Tim Robbins as Jacob, and also starred Danny Aiello and Elizabeth Pena, but it had several supporting actors in the cast whose careers took off after the movie, including Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember and S. Epatha Merkerson. If you’ve seen this movie, it stays with you forever. After increasingly horrific experiences, in the end Jacob becomes reconciled to what happened to him in Vietnam. When that happens his youngest son appears and leads his father by the hand up a staircase toward a brilliant light. We then discover that Jacob’s wounds in Vietnam were mortal and the years of life he seemed to experience was all in his mind as he fought to live – the years took place in days. Life will end for us all, but rather than viewing it as an enemy, it may come as a loved one to release us from pain and let us enter the afterlife with joy.

Honorable Mentions: Defending Your Life, The Others, Heaven Can Wait (1943)

 

The 10 Best Mystery Movies of the 1960s

I’ve always loved mysteries as well as movies, so the mystery movie – at least, a well-done one – is heaven for me.  “Mystery” is a very broad genre, with the only unifying thread being that it features a crime, most often murder.  In tone, the mystery can veer from dramatic to comedic to romantic to horrific.  The classic era of mystery movies ended in the 1950s, but in the decades since there have been some wonderful examples of the genre.  I’ve decided to do a five-part survey of the best modern mysteries.  These are listed in no particular order.  Some of these movies you may know, while others may have slipped under the radar. (I’m also dealing with English-language films so my apologies to those from other countries.) If you have favorites that weren’t mentioned, please feel free to note them in the comments; I had others on my original list that didn’t make the cut.

Bullitt (1968)

The movie that launched a thousand car chases.  Steve McQueen brought his cool demeanor and his driving skills to the role of Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco detective who’s in charge of protecting a witness.  When the witness is assassinated by two killers, Bullitt hides the corpse under a John Doe identity to draw the killers out.  They go after Bullitt himself, leading to the famous car chase that is still one of the best ever filmed.  In the end Bullitt discovers who’s really behind the hit, leading to a foot chase through San Francisco International Airport before the final, deadly climax to the movie.  (A personal note:  Bullitt was based on the novel “Silent Witness.”  The author, Robert L. Fish, provided an endowment in his will to fund a cash prize award, presented at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards Banquet, for the best first-published mystery short story.  I won that award in 2012, so in a way a small slice of the profits from Bullitt ended up in my pocket.)

Charade (1963)

Stanley Donen, known as a musical comedy director (On The Town, Singing in the Rain, Damn Yankees), made a major shift in his career when he directed Charade.  While it featured romance and comedy, it was also an effective mystery thriller with false identities, murderous conspirators, and a hidden treasure from World War II.  It featured the only pairing on film of screen legends Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, leading a strong supporting cast that included Walter Matthau, James Colburn, and George Kennedy.

Cape Fear (1962)

Based on a novel by a Grand Master of the mystery genre, John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear had small-town lawyer Gregory Peck and his family terrorized by Robert Mitchum, a rapist that Peck was responsible for sending to jail years earlier.  Mitchum turns the tables on Peck, using the law to protect him while making life hell for the family.  Both Peck and Mitchum did supporting roles in Martin Scorsese’s remake 29 years later.

Psycho (1960)

A full book has been published about the making of this Alfred Hitchcock classic, which was in turn based on a novel written by Robert Bloch that was inspired by a real murderer, Ed Gein.  Norman Bates’ hobby of taxidermy in the film is a G-rated nod at Gein, who was closer to Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs; he would wear the skin of women he killed and turned their skull caps into soup bowls, among other endearing traits.  The theft which moves the plot during the first act of the film lulls the audience into thinking it’s a normal mystery, right up until Janet Leigh gets in the shower.  While the shocks in the film are like nothing ever seen in a major movie before Psycho, their effect is magnified by Bernard Herrmann’s iconic theme music.

In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

Unlikely partners thrust together to solve a crime is now a standard high-concept plot device for movies (Turner and Hooch, The Hard Way, Red Heat, Beverly Hills Cop, etc.).  The first and best example is this Oscar-winning film directed by Norman Jewison, with Sidney Poitier as a Philadelphia police detective working with a racist Mississippi sheriff (Best Actor winner Rod Steiger) to solve a murder.

Experiment In Terror (1962)

Never did breathing sound so creepy.  A killer threatens Lee Remick and her sister (played by Stephanie Powers) to force Remick to rob the bank where she works as a teller.  FBI agent Glenn Ford tries to find the almost invisible man.  We don’t see the killer until far into the movie, but his asthmatic breathing identifies him in the dark and when he’s disguised.  Ross Martin, who played the killer, doesn’t receive a credit until the end of the film.  This was an early film by Blake Edwards, before he changed his focus to comedy.

Peeping Tom (1960)

The same year that Alfred Hitchcock was shocking audiences with Psycho, British director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) invited his audience inside the mind of a serial killer.  Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) works as a focus puller (assistant cameraman) at a film studio and augments his income by taking naughty pictures for private sales.  But Mark is a damaged soul, the victim of systematic abusive by his behaviorist father that was recorded on film.  Now Mark has his own voyeuristic obsession with film – recording the fear on the faces of women as he kills them.  His downstairs neighbor, Helen (Anna Massey), reaches out to the odd young man.  But will she be his salvation, or his next victim?  Twelve years later, Massey worked with Hitchcock, playing the girlfriend of the suspected killer in Frenzy.

Harper (1966)

One interesting aspect of the 1960s is the dearth of movies featuring that staple of mysteries, the private eye.  Of those few, Harper was the best.  It was based on “The Moving Target” by Ross MacDonald, part of the Lew Archer series, though the title character’s name was changed because star Paul Newman was on a winning streak with movies starting with the letter H (Hud, Hombre, The Hustler).  What begins as a missing person case ends up involving fake religion, human trafficking, kidnapping and murder.  The film also stars Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, and Janet Leigh (who doesn’t go near a shower).

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Three men (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston, and Alan Arkin) do a psychological role-play with a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) to get her to divulge the location of a doll filled with heroin that’s somewhere in her apartment.  It’s a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse, though Hepburn slowly turns from mouse to cat.  The film includes one moment that literally made audiences jump out of their seats.  After this movie, Hepburn retired from acting, though she was coaxed back for a couple of films before her untimely death at age 63 in 1993.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

After making In The Heat Of The Night and before making Bullitt, Norman Jewison and Steve McQueen joined forces to make this movie.  Thomas Crown (McQueen) is incredibly successful and very bored.  For the thrill of it as much as the money, he engineers a robbery that nets over two and a half million dollars.  Enter Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator for the company that insured the money.  She stands to make ten percent of whatever she recovers, but as she investigates Crown she finds herself falling in love with him.  Dunaway did a small role as Crown’s therapist in the 1999 remake, staring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.