Weekly Geeky Question #18: Non-Geeky Movies…for Geeks!

Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #18, and this week’s question is an interesting one:

What are ten great non-geeky, non-scifi, non comic book movies that I’d recommend for geeks to watch?

This is one of the most curious questions I’ve had in this series so far.  It took me by surprise and for a while I wasn’t sure how to answer it. Do I just list ten great movies that don’t have any science fiction or fantasy elements?  Do I just look for ten good movies that people probably haven’t heard of?  Or do I go into it with a chip on my shoulder, trying to prove to people who only like geeky stuff (are there such people?) that creativity didn’t originate with Star Wars and the MCU?

To figure this out, I thought about some of the qualities of these more geeky films–what is it that fans of such films (like myself) might be looking for when they check a story like this out.

Some common aspects include:

  1. Superhero Origin Stories – like Batman Begins, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and so on.
  2. Epic adventure & spectacular action – like The Justice League, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Lord of the Rings
  3. Glimpses of strange, alien worlds not quite like our own – like Avatar, Star Wars, or Dune
  4. Stories of Good vs. Evil – like Superman II, The Lion King, and Transformers
  5. Terrifying monsters – like Alien, Tremors, or Godzilla
  6. Cool teams coming together to achieve victory – like The Avengers, or, um…yeah
  7. Stories about global menaces which threaten all life – like Pacific Rim, Armageddon, or War of the World
  8. Tense confrontations between heroes and arch-enemies who have a deep personal connection – like Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, or Spider-Man: Homecoming
  9. Interesting commentary on the human conditionlike Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, or The Arrival
  10. A shared cinematic universe – like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men, or Star Wars

There are more, of course, but this is a decent list to start with, I think.

So…what are 10, non-science fiction, non-fantasy movies which I consider to be genuinely good, which might be meaningful and worthwhile for fans of such work to watch?  Let’s consider…

1. A Superhero Origin Story

Watch a  young outsider learns to defend himself and others from aggressors who use their strength and power to oppress the weak in…

The Karate Kid

1984 – directed by John G. Avildsen, and starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita.

What’s it about?

Daniel Larusso moves to California and finds himself a target of bullies for being an outsider.  He meets the unassuming Mr. Miyagi and is trained in karate, learning to defend himself and finding self-respect in the process.

Why’s it good?

The Karate Kid has got some storytelling flaws–there are a few beats that are a bit short-changed, and the ending doesn’t have the full emotional payoff that the film really deserves, but the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi is outstanding, with Pat Morita really doing an excellent job as the humble teacher, and the scene where Daniel finally understands what Miyagi is teaching him is an excellent reveal.

2. An Epic Adventure with spectacular action

Thrill to an empire-spanning journey with a man who has lost everything, as he overcomes harrowing danger and personal threat to take revenge on the one who has ruined him in…


Ben-Hur

1959 – directed by William Wyler, and starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd.

What’s it about?

Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy merchant who becomes a victim of political maneuvering and is sentenced to slavery for a crime he didn’t commit.  His quest for vengeance is  transformed by unexpected encounters with a Jewish prophet and teacher

Why’s it good?

Ben-Hur tells a story of genuinely epic scope, and includes at least one scene of such grand proportions that it still stands out as one of the greatest action sequences of ever filmed, even today.  But beyond the actual chariot race is a compelling story of a man who must endure overwhelming odds to survive and reclaim his home and family.


3. A visit to a strange, alien world not quite like our own

Be transported to a bizarre landscape of mystifying characters and unfathomable cultural motivations as three fugitives embark on a quest for unimaginable treasure in…

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2000 – directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, and starring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson.

What’s it about?

Everett convinces his two fellow chain-gang convicts, Pete & Delmar, to become fugitives in order to reclaim the money from a previous crime before it is lost forever.  Their quest takes them through a treacherous landscape of figures drawn from mythical archetypes, and results in some surprising conclusions.

Why’s it good?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is my favorite of the Coen Brothers many films, effortlessly bringing the viewer into a stylized and surrealistic version of the southern United States in the 1930’s.  The boasts witty dialogue and funny performances, with just the right amount of heart to keep the movie from tipping over into inaccessible.


4. Classic battle between good and evil

Feel the challenge faced by a reluctant lawyer who must dig through his own preconceptions to come to grips with the evil and injustice that surrounds him on all sides in…

Bridge of Spies

2016 – directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Tom Hanks, with Mark Rylance.
What’s it about?

James B. Donavan must reluctantly take on a case to defend a Russian spy who has been caught and captured on American soil.  His innovative solution later leads him to being the only person who is able to help negotiate freedom for both an American military pilot and an American graduate student who have been convicted of spying for the opposite side.

Why’s it good?

In a world full of James Bond, the Kingsmen and UNCLE, Brigde of Spies stands out as an unpretentious but gripping political espionage story which is grounded in its characters.  James Donavan is a man who has to decide to look past the interests of his country and his personal life in order to figure out what is actually right, and then to find the will and ingenuity to pull it off.


5. A terrifying monster

Experience the dread of a relentless killing machine that pursues its quarry with no hint of mercy or pity in…

Jaws

1975 – directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss.

What’s it about?

When a huge, man-eating shark terrorizes the tourist beach town of Amity, three disparate men embark on risky mission to hunt the creature and stop the carnage.

Why’s it good?

Come on, this is Jaws.  I have to explain why it’s good?  It’s a gripping drama that perfectly balances suspense and shock-thrills, while also creating a powerful backbone of characterization anchored by three great performances–Roy Scheider as the beleaguered town sheriff, Richard Dreyfuss as the earnest oceanographer, and Robert Shaw as the semi-insane and obsessive fisherman.


6. Cool teams coming together to achieve victory

Cheer as a team of experts are thrown together in adversity, pooling their skills to outwit an overpowering foe, in…

The Great Escape

1963 – directed by John Sturges, and starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and lots more!

What’s it about?

To prevent them from causing trouble, the Nazi’s put all of their most accomplished escape expert POW’s into one “escape-proof” camp.  It does not go well.

Why’s it good?

In spite of its serious premise, The Great Escape provides a remarkably fun viewing experience.  In equal parts a procedural drama and a grand adventure story, the film details the experts of a massive cast full of recognizable actors, taking us through the thrill of their victories and the heartbreak of their defeats.  The supporting players include such luminaries as Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Gordon Jackson, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, Nigel Stock and Doctor Who‘s own William Russell–a great assembly.


7. A story about a menace which threatens all life on earth

Delight in the story of how hope arises from the unlikeliest of sources in the face of looming global catastrophe in…

Fish Story

2009 – directed by Yoshihiro Nakamuro, and featuring an ensemble of Japanese actors, none really more important than the next

What’s it about?

In 2012, an asteroid threatens the earth, but the owner of a record store is convinced that an early punk rock song recorded by a forgotten band in 1975 is the key to humanity’s salvation.  The thing is…he’s right.

Why’s it good?

OK, Fish Story does start and end in 2012, which was the future at the time the film was made, and it does feature an asteroid threatening the earth.  And it also features a youth who was trained from childhood to be a champion of justice, who has to fight a doomsday cult who takes boatload of hostages.

But in spite of all that, it’s not really a science fiction film, and doesn’t really have any fantasy elements beyond the sort of dramatic coolness-driven contrivances present in lots of movies.  The film’s story is a delightful puzzle with a light-hearted touch, told back and forth across numerous time periods.  It’s charm lies in seeing how ordinary actions and decisions that the characters make wind up having extraordinary and significant outcomes, and how quiet moments of courage and honesty can have the most lasting effects.


8. Tense confrontations between heroes and arch-enemies who have a deep personal connection

See the unforgettable story of two college friends who reunite after decades apart, only to discover that their youthful rebellions have led each to the opposite side of an ideological divide in…

Sneakers

1992 – directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier and Ben Kingsley.

What’s it about?

Martin Bishop narrowly avoids being arrested with his friend Cosmo while performing a computer hack to send money to their political causes.  Years later, he leads a team of specialists who test security systems by attempting to break them.  In this process, he discovers secret technology that leads to run afoul of  his long thought dead friend, Cosmo, who intends to take their previous rebellious ways a step further and use the same tech to destabilize the world economy.

Why’s it good?

Sneakers isn’t a masterpiece or anything but it is a fun take on the classic caper movie, with an intriguing plot and a good cast.  Each of the characters is delineated sharply, with actors like Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mary McDonnell and David Straithairn all getting good stuff to do.  And just when it can’t get any more fun, there’s a great appearance by James Earl Jones at the end.  And though you wouldn’t call it a kid’s movie, it far lighter on the violence than you’d expect for a film like this.


9. An interesting commentary about the human condition

Weep to the trials of two outsiders as they come to terms with the angst of human  society in…

The Giant Mechanical Man

2012 – directed by Lee Kirk, and starring Jenna Fischer and Chris Messina.

What’s it about?

Janice is grown woman who doesn’t know how to be an adult, and Tim spends his days as a silver-painted street performer trying to communicate about the problems of modern life.  In meeting each other in the midst of their uncertainty, they discover genuine relationship

Why’s it good?

In this case, there is no ambiguity–unlike Fish Story or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, no one could consider The Giant Mechanical Man anything but a naturalistic, light-hearted romance drama.  The title has nothing to do with aliens or robots, but still offers in interesting look at what it’s like to navigate life and romance and human interaction. The film does an excellent job connecting us with its two leads, and even if we’ve never quite lived their life we come away with a strong sense of their confusion, their uncertainty, and eventually their hope and joy.


10. A shared cinematic universe

Marvel at the comical misadventures of young people thrown into an awkward partnership, and delight at the connections of this story with another by the same creator, in…

The Miracle of Morgan Creek

1944 – directed by Preston Sturges, and starring Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken.

What’s it about?

Trucy Kockenlocker has gotten herself into a real pickle.  After a night partying with soldiers about to head off to war, she’s woken up to find herself married…but with no idea to whom.  Even more dramatically, she’s pregnant.  She then convinces the boy who likes her, Norval Jones, to go through a fake wedding with her in order to avoid scandal.  Hilarity and comical confusion ensue!

Why’s it good?

The plot is surprising, the performances delightful and Preston Sturges’ script is comedy gold.  The direction is fast-paced and the sequences contains one laugh after another.  It’s a great movie.

Oh…the shared cinematic universe aspect?  Well, it turns out that Sturges was writing the script as he was filming it, and decided somewhere along the lines to bring in two characters that had appeared in his previous film – Governor McGinty and the “Boss”, from The Great McGinty – to facilitate his ending.  And thus, the Preston Sturges shared cinematic universe was created.  Sturges actually used all sorts of actors over and over again in his movies–William Demarest alone appeared in ten movies that he wrote (and in some cases directed).  I don’t know them all by any means, but I wonder if there’d be a way to justify the idea that they were all really the same character?

Ok, the connection is tenuous as best, but it’s a great movie that should be enjoyed by geeks and non-geeks alike.


And that’s it–ten non-geeky films (for the most part) for geeks!  See you next time!

But, before you go, let’s add one more movie, after the blogpost is over…along the lines of the post-credit scene.

So…let yourself be challenged and stimulated by the psychology a compulsive liar, and cheer as a man of integrity finds the truth, in…

Shattered Glass

2003 – directed by Billy Ray, and starring Hayden Christensen and Peter Saarsgard.

What’s it about?

Stephen Glass is a reporter for The New Republic who becomes popular because of his unusual human interest stories.  But after a long career, his editor, Chuck Lane, becomes suspicious of his work and eventually determines that nearly all of Glass’ stories are partially or entirely fabricated.

Why’s it good?

Shattered Glass is an engaging though low-key and quiet drama about the real-life Stephen Glass, an unusual figure who fooled his editors, co-workers and readers for years.  It’s an effective character study and engaging story that is well worth the watch.

But why is it on this list?  Well, just to prove that Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker from Star WarsEpisode II & III) and Peter Saarsgard (Hector Hammond from Green Lantern) actually have been in good movies.

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