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10 Westerns to Watch Before You Die

If you watch movies, then you’ve probably seen (or heard of) the western, one of the most iconic genres of the Hollywood film industry.

Maybe you love them. Maybe you’ve seen one subpar western movie and thought “meh.”

I hated them…until I watched the right westerns.

The goal of this article is not to re-hash the “best western films ever” that have been written about and recycled endlessly. (You can find any number of these lists on IMDB.com.) Rather, these are 10 of the westerns that changed my outlook on the genre.

Everyone of these westerns is worth watching before you kick the bucket, or if you’re simply seeking to expand your film education, or if you are planning to write one yourself.

But enough about me. Let’s dig in…

10. The Magnificent Seven

John Sturges | 1960 | Runtime: 2h 8m | IMDB: 7.8 | Metascore: 74

Mexican peasants recruit seven gunfighters to defend their village from a band of vicious banditos in this classic, iconic western. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson star in this western adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, delivering action, grit and drama on the American frontier while accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score.

If you like this, also watch: The Magnificent Seven (2016), The Professionals, Rio Bravo, Silverado, Vera Cruz, Young Guns

9. 3:10 to Yuma

James Mangold | 2007 | Runtime: 2h 2m | IMDB: 7.7 | Metascore: 76

If you’re looking for something a little more modern, this film is it. Starring Russell Crow and Christian Bale, 3:10 to Yuma has it all: nail-biting action, big set pieces, great acting, iconic roles—all without sacrificing quality characters. Considered to be one of the great westerns of the 21st century, this remake of the Glenn Ford classic tells the story of a destitute war veteran-turned-rancher escorting a wily outlaw to the 3:10 train to Yuma. Nominated for two Oscars.

If you like this, also watch: 3:10 to Yuma (1957), High Noon, Open Range, Rio Grande, Stagecoach, Tombstone, Winchester ‘73

8. Shane

George Stevens | 1953 | Runtime: 1h 58m | IMDB: 7.7 | Metascore: 80

Alan Ladd stars in this small tale about a mysterious gunfighter who defends his newfound friends from a vicious frontiersman and his band of violent cronies. A departure from earlier westerns, this Oscar-winning film forgoes blood-pumping action sequences in favor of a slow boil that delivers a cathartic payoff and several iconic scenes. Particularly memorable are its breathtaking landscapes that underscore a previously-overlooked story: the struggle of the second wave of pioneers against the frontier’s first settlers.

If you like this, also watch: The Big Country, The Great Silence, Johnny Guitar, Open Range, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Shenandoah, Unforgiven

7. Broken Arrow

Delmer Daves | 1950 | IMDB: 7.2 | Metascore: N/A (External only)

Let’s start by making clear that we are referring to the 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart, not the 1996 flick starring John Travolta or the 1950s TV series of the same name.

What makes Broken Arrow stand out is not its three Oscar nominations, but its unusually progressive approach to “cowboys and Indians.” Unlike the typical western that focuses on the struggle of white hats vs black hats or cowboys vs Indians, Stewart’s characters seeks to bring the two sides together in peace—but at great personal cost. Although Broken Arrow is perhaps the first big Hollywood blockbuster to depict indigenous Americans as sympathetic and fully human, the movie industry still had a long way to go in how they express “minorities” (read: non-white folks). They still do.

But, then again, Hollywood has a pretty dicey history when it comes to racial and gender equality, even though the majority of industry professionals are strongly pro-equality. (It remains a sad fact that Hollywood’s biggest influencers are still a bunch of rich white guys.)

If you like this, also watch: Dances with Wolves, The Far Country, Giant, The Man from Laramie, Legends of the Fall, Little Big Man, The Naked Spur

6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

George Roy Hill | 1969 | Runtime: 1h 50m | IMDB: 8.1 | Metascore: 66

Hollywood legends Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in this classic by screenwriting great William Goldman about two outlaws who haven’t changed with the times—and pay the ultimate price. Not only does this classic film boast four Oscars to its name, IMDB also lists Butch Cassidy in its Top 250 films of all time.

Westerns set after the end of the American Civil War (1865) tend to express themes of changing times, technology versus human effort, and old-fashioned heroes struggling to adapt to the new status quo. Accolades aside, Butch Cassidy sits at the pinnacle of this theme. Times have indeed changed since the Civil War ended. Now, the traditional “wild west” has evolved into a strange world populated by technology and civilization, leaving the old cowboys in the dust.

If you like this, also watch: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Last Train from Gun Hill, My Darling Clementine, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Wild Bunch

5. The Gunfighter

Henry King | 1950 | IMDB: 7.7 | Metascore: 94

All too often overlooked but an absolute gem, this black and white film starring Gregory Peck focuses on the plight of the gunfighter who has reached his peak, but then finds himself unable to escape his reputation. In some ways, The Gunfighter demonstrates attributes of an anti-western without fully shedding its western skin. It’s a slower, tragic character piece that illuminates a neglected aspect of the western, the gunfighter as a human being, while revealing the emotion, wisdom and ignorance that so often is left out of more traditional western flicks. Thoughtful and introspective, the cast carries the show with aplomb and magnetism, carefully circumventing devolution into a mindless shooter.

If you are a serious cinephile, then be sure to put this notch in your belt. It will stick with you.

If you like this, also watch: The Bravados, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, Yellow Sky

4.  The Searchers

John Ford | 1956 | Runtime: 1h 59m | IMDB: 8.0 | Metascore: 94

Like The Gunfighter, this under-appreciated masterpiece will burn itself into your memory. The Searchers is nothing less than John Ford at his best. John Wayne at his most John Wayne-ness. The high point part of every western crammed into 118 minutes—although it seems much longer.

That said, The Searchers tells the story of two men who set out to find their captured niece/sister after their family is murdered by a Comanche warband. The thing is, it takes them half a decade to find her, enduring hardship and personal sacrifice along the way. Lighter comedic moments counter-balance the heavy drama. Expect to laugh, cry, and cheer.

If you like this, also watch: El Dorado, Fort Apache, Jeremiah Johnson, Nevada Smith, Red River, Ride the High Country, Rio Lobo

3. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino | 2012 | Runtime: 2h 45m | IMDB: 8.4 | Metascore: 81

Moving forward in time to modern cinema, Tarantino’s provocative film is not so much a “western” in the orthodox sense as it is a self-described “southern.” In terms of genre, Django Unchained still fits the bill for the “western” genre.

Django tells the story of a freed slave who pairs up with an itinerant German Jew to rescue his love from a charming but sociopathic plantation owner. With an all-star cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s greatest. Viewers can expect the trademark Tarantino contrast of meticulous patience and brutal violence. By roping in a host of alluring minority characters, the movie doesn’t hold back on its tacit (sometimes blatant) criticism of the Old South.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking Django is just a revisionist apology for slavery. The film is much more than that—and nothing short of an enthralling ride from start to finish.

If you like this, also watch: Duck, You Sucker, The Hateful Eight, Hell or High Water, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Revenant

2. True Grit

Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | 2010 | Runtime: 1h 50m | IMDB: 7.6 | Metascore: 80

Underrated and understated, the 2010 remake of True Grit is a small story that delivers 110%. Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn, a hardened, gritty man who reveals his inner soft side while protecting a young girl with a powerhouse personality (played by Hailee Steinfeld). As far as remakes go, this 2010 version leaves its 1969 predecessor in the frontier dust.

While the Coen brothers’ storytelling far outstrips that of the original, Jeff Bridges delivers some of his best work. In comparison, John Wayne’s performance in the previous True Grit is, well, not great. The newer True Grit remains a personal favorite of mine for its understated delivery and eloquent filmmaking.

But don’t take my word for it—True Grit was nominated for 10 Oscars, after all. Less than 100 films in the Academy’s cinema history can claim as much.

If you like this, also watch: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Gundown, Dead Man, True Grit (1969)

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Also known as: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo | Sergio Leone | 1967 | Runtime: 2h 58m | IMDB: 8.8 | Metascore: 90

If you only ever watch one western in your life, this is the movie to watch. The most famous Spaghetti Western of all time, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo stars Clint Eastwood as the lead, Tonino Delli Colli’s breathtaking cinematography, and Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone’s timeless soundtrack. A three-way triad of conflict drives the story as a “good” character teams up with a “bad” and an “ugly” (read: chaotic neutral) character to uncover buried gold, all the while trying to outwit, kill or imprison each other along the way.

The result?

Nearly every visual and soundtrack stereotype pop culture associates with the western genre comes from this film. Three-way Mexican standoff? Check. Frenetic classical guitar music and blaring trumpets? Yup. Clint Eastwood? Double check. Stony-faced men of few words? Triple check.

IMDB.com ranks The GB&U as the top western and #9 in its 250 Top Rated Movies—to which Once Upon a Time in the West (another Sergio Leone film) is a distant second at slot #37.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has to be #1 on this list not just because it’s an outstanding cinema masterpiece, but because it has inspired filmmakers, writers, actors, cinematographers, composers and wannabe cowboys for decades since. In many ways, The GB&U is unofficially considered the ultimate expression of the western as a movie genre.

If you like this, also watch: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, High Plains Drifter, Once Upon a Time in the West

Honorable Mentions

Clearly, this is by no means a comprehensive list. Many gems did make the cut—not because I dislike them or find them lacking aesthetic value. Rather, I tried to stay focused on 10 stand-out works of cinematic art that not everyone may have seen.

I did not include any comedies in the aforementioned list. If you are interested in comedy-westerns, start with films like Blazing Saddles, Three Amigos!, My Name is Nobody, and (if you’re brave enough) Wild Wild West (1999).

If you want to explore film that goes against everything the western genre is and stands for, then watch No Country for Old Men, an unofficial anti-western in the most extreme and bitter sense. Warning: As with any anti-genre, if you like the genre itself, anti-genre may make you uncomfortable. If you want to start with something milder, try a Revisionist Western.

And lastly, I did not include any of the TV show westerns that litter the history of the small screen, like Lonesome Dove, Bonanza, and Deadwood, to name a few.

If you are interested in exploring other gems in the western genre, several IMDB users have put together helpful lists of top westerns to watch. I found this list particularly useful.

Thinking about writing your own western? Or looking for help on the next draft? I’m happy to help.

8 Movies That Prove Perspective is Everything

If film has taught us anything, it’s that different people perceive things differently. That’s how we get conflict. And we wouldn’t have conflict if we all experienced and interpreted events in exactly the same way.

Whereas history presents itself as being an objective treatment of the human story, story in the narrative sense relies more on the subjective experiences of our narrators, protagonists, and characters. The way they view motivations and events isn’t necessarily the way other characters in those same stories would view them.

The storytelling term that addresses this subjectivity is called an ‘unreliable narrator.’ How an unreliable narrator frames story events for the audience isn’t necessarily the way they actually happened.

On that note, we’re going to explore eight movies that show how perspective and point of view shape our interpretation of story.

(WARNING! These films aren’t for everyone. But if you’re in the mood to flex those hungry cinephile muscles, then you should absolutely watch every movie on this list. Hint: The best ones are at the end.)

1. Dale and Tucker vs Evil

IMDB | 2010 | R | 1h 29min | Action, Comedy, Horror

Let’s start simple and easy. Dale and Tucker vs Evil is a fun, light-hearted romp that takes a concept like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and turns it on its head to show things from the perspective of the “bad guys.” What we learn, however, is that these chainsaw-wielding hillbillies are anything but “bad.” It’s merely the viewpoint of the victims that frame Dale and Tucker as psychotic murderers. Worth noting is how the movie goes the extra mile to make use love and sympathize with the unlucky protagonists, played by the talented Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine.

Continue reading 8 Movies That Prove Perspective is Everything

10 Tips for Writing That TV Pilot

So you want to write your own television show. Great!

Before you commit to writing the pilot episode for your brand-new TV show, why don’t you take a look at these 10 helpful tips for writing that TV pilot that will make your writing life a little bit easier.

1. Prepare to Invest

Many people jump right into writing episode one—the pilot for a brand-new show—thinking, “Hey, this will be WAY easier than writing that new novel of mine, or taking all that time to write a feature-length screenplay.”

Reality check: It isn’t.

In fact, developing a good TV pilot can be the hardest and most involved of all three, even though the end result may only look like 40-60 pages from the outside. This is because when you write a pilot, you aren’t just writing the script for episode one; you are creating a whole new concept with complex characters, multiple story threads, with as many setups and ideas for future episodes as possible. When someone reads your pilot script, they will only be reading the tip of the iceberg, not the vast amount of backend work that went into producing those measly few pages.

2. The Concept Must KILL

Before you really dig into your show, take enough time to make the concept air-tight. What do we mean by “concept”? The concept is a fleshed-out version of the core idea for your TV show—the idea that makes your show different from every other show out there.

If your concept is clear, it should be obvious what makes your show different from others and also make someone want to watch the show itself. For example, “ER for women” was a successful concept that became Grey’s Anatomy, based on the success of an already existing show but with a new angle. Lost created appeal through the concept alone: A group of strangers become lost after crash landing on a mysterious island inhabited by strange forces, but while surviving on the island, each character finds individual purpose after having been “lost” in their personal lives back home.

That said, make the concept grab the audience’s attention. For example, don’t just write an alien invasion show. It’s been done many times and hasn’t been successful. But if you want to write an alien invasion show where humankind is the invader—now that’s an interesting twist people can get behind.

3. Legs: The Show Must Go On

For American television, “legs” are very, very important. What do we mean by legs? “Legs” refers to the potential episodes the show can produce in the long-term based on the concept. A more open-ended concept typically offers more “legs.” A closed concept with one specific, attainable goal offers less of a future (if any).

With that in mind, part of what your pilot must do is setup the long-term future of the show—the “legs.” My Name Is Earl did this by using a wide-open concept with no foreseeable limitations (his list of wrongs to “right” can be as long as the sun, for all we know). A show about thieves planning a heist is problematic in that the goal is far too easy to reach. Once they’ve reached their goal, where does the show go from there? Breaking Bad solved this by always creating a bigger goal for the protagonist to achieve once (or even before) the old has been solved.

4. Know Your Audience

This should go without saying, but it comes up far too often to leave out. If the show doesn’t have a clear or specific audience in mind, then it will not be successful. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and Stranger Things nail their audience targeting. Now imagine if Pretty Little Liars was written to target 30-something males…it would have bombed. The mid-2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica tried to rope in a wider female audience by focusing on romance in later seasons, and the result turned the show into a soap opera in space—disappointing original and the new audiences alike. The moral of the story? Yup, you guessed it: Know your audience.

5. Characters Are Everything, Protagonist More So

While characters are the heart and soul of any story, in television, they are the most important element. The cast needs to do more than survive the pilot. They will be responsible for carrying the show long-term. Above and beyond that, the central protagonist needs to be the most interesting of all, fleshed out with enough potential new material to keep audiences coming back episode after episode, season after season. If your characters don’t have enough setups in the pilot, they won’t be interesting enough to carry a second episode. Remember, anything that applies to the characters counts doubly so for the protagonist.

6. Include Act Breaks

In the modern age of commercial-free Internet streaming, writers sometimes think their pilot scripts should also be act-free (act breaks are where the commercials play). Incorrect. Always include act breaks.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Act breaks represent major structural highs and lows in the plot, so leaving them out flattens these points and harms the overall flow of the story.
  2. It makes the writer look like they don’t know what they are doing, even if they do.
  3. It creates ambiguity about the script’s end goal—is it a short film? Is part of the script missing? Is it actually half of a feature screenplay?

When you aren’t there to explain it to the people reading the script, any extra uncertainties can stop your pilot’s progress dead in the water.

7. Don’t Forget the B-Story

Sometimes writers leave out or drop the B-Story in their pilot because due to lack of room. Big mistake. Don’t ever do this. Your pilot needs to have a B-Story—industry pros will be looking for it and they will notice if it’s missing. Believe it or not, so will your audience. A script with just an A-Story tends to feel hollow and like it’s missing “heart.” Remember, the B-Story is a chance to humanize your characters, keep main cast members involved in the show even when they aren’t directly involved in the A-Plot, and give the audience a breather from the main storyline. The B-Story is also a chance to loosen up and have some extra fun with the show.

8. Blueprint the Show

Your pilot script not only needs to set up the world of the show, character problems and imply future storylines, it must “blueprint” the entire show by illustrating how a normal episode will run its course. This can be tricky because you are essentially trying to pack two different episodes into one. But it’s necessary to communicate the look, feel, and overall sense of what it means to be “the show.” In recent years, well-funded projects have tackled this difficult task by creating two-part pilots (two episodes viewed back-to-back), the first part taking its time to set up the show and the second part showing what a regular episode will look like. While an ideal solution, in a spec script that’s a dicey option since it requires double the effort, double the budget to make, and thus doubles the risk of failure from an investment standpoint. So, for spec script, try splitting up the pilot into first half for setup and second half for blueprinting. Alternatively, integrate them together so we don’t notice. It’s much harder and comes with its own risks, but can payoff in the form of a solid pilot script that stands on its own.

9. Create a Show Bible

You don’t absolutely need a show bible to write a successful pilot, but it helps—a lot. Think of it as a multi-use tool where you can include all your notes and ideas about future episodes, character and story arcs, character bios, hidden and upcoming tidbits, etc. Putting all of this into a formalized document that can be shared along with the pilot shows industry execs that you are serious about your pilot, you’ve spent time developing the show beyond episode one, and that you’re thinking long-term. Having a show bible in your back pocket also allows you to cram less into your pilot (it’s written down elsewhere) and enrich your characters on screen because you’ve spent time exploring them in the bible. Don’t be fooled, creating a show bible can be an overwhelming task. Start by breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces, like short season/episode synopses, character roles, flaws, dreams, secrets, etc.

10. Bible First, Script Last (Outline in Between)

Writers and writing teachers often view their “writing” or tangible end product in terms of written pages. Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Try developing a show bible first and getting that really solid, create an outline of the pilot, break it down into a beat sheet, and then write the actual pilot script last. That way you’ve had more time to figure out all the little details and plotlines beforehand, so you end up with stronger pages and fewer rewrites. Once words are down on the script page, it becomes hard to “kill your darlings” and make the necessary changes. But with a show bible, outline, and beat sheet in hand, your first true “draft” resulting in pages will look far closer to a finely-polished script than you may get by going through old fashioned draft iterations.

Now that you’ve had a chance to check off the last 10 boxes, are you still ready to accept the challenge of writing that TV pilot? Hey, it’s the golden age of television right now, so maybe you should.

Working on a TV pilot? Let us know. We’d love to hear about your progress!

Need help developing or rewriting your TV pilot? Contact us today for a consultation.

10 Artistic Films to Watch Before You Die

A quick heads up: We’re going to hit the international smorgasbord of taste in this article.

Are you a cinephile who loves artistic film? The road less traveled? Films that dare to defy convention? Then you’ve come to the right place.

I’m not going to lie, each of these films holds a special place in my heart and have stayed with me in the decades since I first experienced them. Now I want to pass those memorable experiences onto others.

No, not every one of these movies hits a Perfect 10 on the quality scale, and no, I’m not asking you to absolutely love every one of these films. However, I will ask you to keep an open mind and ignore the IMDB ratings. This discussion is about expanding your horizons beyond the narrow cookie-cutter Hollywood norms.

Let’s start with something soft and light:

1. Heartbeats

heartbeats

Originally: Les amours imaginaires
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Year: 2010
Runtime: 1h 41m
Genre: Drama, Romance
Country: France
Watch: YouTube, DVD

Perhaps the most mainstream film of this bunch, Heartbeats carries itself with subtlety, tenderness, and an almost uncomfortably close intimacy. This beautiful film takes a carefully crafted approach to navigating the uncertainties of love, friendship, gender and sexual fluidity by exploring the complex relationships within an ambiguous love triangle. A small cast in character-centric film, the content itself is somewhat progressive, but breathtaking in its heartfelt simplicity.

Still with me? Good. Let’s challenge your senses a little more.

2. Princess Mononoke

mononoke

Originally: Mononoke-hime
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Gaiman (Adapted By)
Year: 1997
Runtime: 2h 14m
Genre: Animation, Action/Adventure, Fantasy
Country: Japan
Watch: DVD, Blu-ray

This anime feature film expresses a deep, theme-laden story through a dichotomous portrayal of beauty and brutality. The plot literalizes the metaphor of industrialization polluting the purity of nature, playing out the struggle on-screen with visual moments that will make your heart drop in your chest. But don’t let me spoil the plot. Experience it yourself. After all, there’s a reason this Studio Ghibli masterpiece has remained popular over the years.

3. The Tenant

tenant

Originally: La locataire
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, Roland Topor (novel)
Year: 1976
Runtime: 2h 6m
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD

You’ve heard of Rosemary’s Baby, but maybe you haven’t heard of Roman Polanski’s other other, arguably better, psychological horror film, The Tenant? Probably not. But here’s why you should watch it: The storytelling pays incredible attention to detail and the fluid, gradual madness that befalls the protagonist. You won’t even realize how deep into the story you are until the circular plot throws you for a loop with a powerful finale—or is it the beginning?

4. Run Lola Run

lola

Originally: Lola rennt
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Year: 1998
Runtime: 1h 20m
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Country: Germany
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

A well-known international film popular among American cinephiles, Run Lola Run straddles the line between feature and short film while exploring the surreality of multiple endings. In the story, the protagonist finds herself in a jam, forcing her to make quick decisions, each leading to a cascading series of unforeseen consequences. Lola doesn’t hold your hand along the way, either, creating plenty of material for thought-provoking analysis.

Still there? Great. Let’s move into more obscure territory…

5. Kanal

kanal

AKA: The Sewer
Director:
 Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski
Year: 1957
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, War
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD

A film by one of the Polish masters, Andrzej Wajda, the predecessor to other Polish greats like Krzysztof Kieslowski and controversial directing great Roman Polanski, Kanal offers a layered retelling of Dante’s Inferno. Set in the sewers of Warsaw in WWII, the surface plot acts as a proxy to express Poland’s struggle to regain its lost identity after the USSR takeover. Bravery, insanity, and tragedy all have their place in this incredible piece of Polish Cold War-era film history.

6. Baraka

baraka

AKA: Baraka – A World Beyond Words
Director:
 Ron Fricke
Writers: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson, Genevieve Nicholas, Constantine Nicholas, Bob Green
Year: 1992
Runtime: 1h 36m
Genre: Documentary
Country: United States
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

No, this awe-inspiring documentary has nothing to do with former U.S. President Barack Obama. Rather, it’s a visual record of a day in the history of the world from sunrise to sunset, without any dialogue or narration. In many ways, Baraka is a more of a motion portrait of humankind than a true documentary, but let’s leave that distinction to the film critics. If you love documentaries, or even just love still photography, this often forgotten film should move to the top of your list.

7. The Double Life of Veronique

veronique

Originally: La double vie de Véronique
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Writers: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Year: 1991
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Music
Country: France/Poland
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

Kieslowski explores the idea of an individual meeting their doppelganger in a surreal, dramatically emotional film layered with spirituality and ambiguous meaning. This is the film to watch and analyze if you want to get your fingers dirty with film criticism. And if you like Double Life, be sure to check out Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue.

Great work! You’ve made it this far. Time to bring out the big guns:

8. Man of Marble

marble

Originally: Czlowiek z marmuru
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Aleksander Scibor-Rylski
Year: 1977
Runtime: 2h 40m
Genre: Drama
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD, Blu-Ray

A personal favorite of mine, this Polish film (Andrzej Wajda again) requires some historical background knowledge to fully grasp. Essentially, a young film student tracks down an old communist-era hero of the working class, uncovering a long trail of untruths in the process. While watching Man of Marble, keep a keen eye open for how Wajda and Scibo-Rylski dodge the communist censors while simultaneously criticizing that very same institution of censorship with every second of motion picture. And sure, the dramatic leg poses and disco music can certainly be a sensory challenge, but hey, it was over 30 years ago. Those superficial issues aside, the film’s storytelling technique is deceptively deep and intricate, and every act and every line of dialogue comes loaded with subtext and double meaning. For depth in storytelling, it doesn’t get much closer to technical perfection than Wajda’s Man of Marble.

9. A Hole in My Heart

holeinheart

Originally: Ett hål i mitt hjärta
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Writer: Lukas Moodysson
Year: 2004
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama
Country: Sweden
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD

Now we’ve arrived to the most obscure, avant-garde point of the article. This film experienced an extremely limited release (1 screen for 2 weeks only), paltry box office returns ($3,306 gross), and no mainstream reception whatsoever (just look at the IMDB rating and Metascore). A Hole in My Heart takes on the unrestrained lust of the pornography industry and peels away the layers to reveal the rot and disgust that lies beneath through visual metaphor and reality TV conventions such as the confession box. Sure, Moodysson’s film can be aesthetically challenging, if not outright bizarre, but simultaneously thoughtful, satirical, and—of all things—incredibly intimate and heartfelt.

Finally, let’s end on a (slightly) more positive note:

10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

cherbourg

Originally: Les parapluies de Cherbourg
Director: Jacques Demy
Writer: Jacques Demy
Year: 1964
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

This award-winning musical hangs somewhere between the realms of obscurity and cherished history, sweeping Cannes in 1964 but losing out at the 1966 Academy Awards to more mainstream films like The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago (yes, THAT Doctor Zhivago). Strange in its vivid colorfulness but drab, unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a romance that doesn’t work out, Umbrellas is nothing short of a filmic experience every cinephile should have. And while you’re at it, maybe you can settle the debate over whether it’s a true musical or really a modern asymmetrical opera.

 

Did you like this list? If so, give me a shout out on Twitter or Facebook and I will write another!

Or pick my brain yourself at Storysci.com.

Top 10 Lit Books No One Reads (But Everyone Should)

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

1ataleoftwocities

The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear “Dickens” is “boring.” Wrong. A Tale of Two Cities is anything but. Beginning with one of the most famous story openings of all time, Dickens takes us through a visually stunning web of historical stories taking place during the bloodiest part of the French Revolution. Themes, imagery, and motifs are so thickly distributed in the novel an entire book series could be dedicated to their analysis. But don’t just take my word for it – “Cities” is one of the bestselling novels of all time, and for good reason!

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane2redbadgeofcourage

An early war novel depicting life in the American Civil War by Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage follows the emotional journey of a young man through realistic action, powerful themes and heavy symbolism in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. It’s a short book, so if you haven’t read it, maybe it’s time you did.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker3dracula

Not only is it the definitive vampire novel that inspired big-time franchises such as Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (starting with Interview with the Vampire) and Twilight, it’s also a patient, haunting tale of evil reawakened. Read this and you’ll understand why Bram Stoker‘s Dracula stands the test of the time and remains one of the greatest horror novels ever written.

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte4janeeyre

While many consider the classic Jane Eyre to be an early piece of chick lit, it is anything but. Introspective, emotionally robust and progressively feminist, Bronte’s gothic tale is a coming-of-age story featuring a strong-willed woman who survives the brutality of the age to achieve her desires on her own terms. Themes of atonement, forgiveness, and success through independence and morality lend this classic some serious gravitas as a work of timeless art.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck5ofmiceandmen

A novella about two migrant workers who dream of greater things, only to be thwarted by their own flaws, social and economic status. Steinbeck‘s unflinching honesty about the unchangeable fate of those destined to fail because of their own disadvantages paints a harsh picture, but an emotional effective one concerning certain aspects of human nature. The ending is sure to make you wring your hands out of frustrated futility but Of Mice and Men is absolutely worth a read if you’re serious about literature.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell6nineteeneightyfour1984

1984” meticulously explores the future of communism, censorship, privacy, and thought control through the eyes of man who believes himself one step ahead of the government. More than anything, Orwell’s novel is a stunning thought experiment warning us about the fate of society without freedom of speech. If you love plots that feature plans within plans, intrigue, and thoughtful social commentary then pick up George’s book. Who knows? It might be your new favorite book.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding7lordoftheflies

Brutality and humanity collide in this survival tale about a group of normal school boys stranded on an island. Together they build a new society which brings out dormant primitive instincts and ultimately plays out as an embodiment of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. Individuality and mob mentality clash in this provocative thought experiment in novel form. William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies will haunt you with it’s accurate depiction of unrestrained primal human instincts descending into violence and chaos.

8. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas8thethreemusketeers

Everyone’s heard of them, but have you actually read the book? Unlike the realism or religious-themed works set in the same time period, Dumas’s novel is pure adventure, a story in which boys will be boys and have a hell of lot of fun doing it. The Three Musketeers is no stuffy piece of dense literature; it’s a fun romp from beginning to end. It only takes a few pages to understand why Dumas’s book inspired so much timeless acclaim.

9. Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils9camille

Written by Alexandre Dumas’s son, Camille explores a love affair between a gentleman and high class prostitute in a way that makes the book impossible to put down through a clever use of cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter. The novel takes us through a man’s descent into uncontrollable obsession with a woman willing to give up her glamorous life for him, only to be thwarted by the meddling of family over worries about damage to their reputation. Also known as La Dame aux Camélias or “The Lady of the Camellias.”

10. (TIE) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee AND Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote10a-tokillamockingbird

A classic which highlights culture and race in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird stands up for human rights and equality at a time where doing so could get you killed. Capote’s book takes us through a more laid-back exploration of an even more rural, isolated area of the Gothic South.10b-othervoicesotherrooms

These books are paired together for a reason. Both Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms deal with children coming-of-age through the loss of innocence. Not only were they written by real-life best friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote, both are also featured as major supporting cast members in each other’s novels.

 

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Rights to the book covers used in this article are not owned or licensed by Story Science. They are simply used as an expedient means for readers to acquire inexpensive copies of these books if so desired. This is not a sales pitch on behalf of anyone or any party. These books are truly amazing in their own right, regardless of version, publisher, or book cover.

10 Characteristics of Good Dialogue

So you want to write dialogue. A lot of people think they write “good” dialogue without understanding even the basics. That’s okay. Dialogue is one of those technical aspects of storytelling everyone can learn. Let’s take a look at valuable characteristics found in truly good dialogue.

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Good dialogue…

1. Reveals character and plot in every line.

This is rule #1. Write dialogue with purpose. If each line doesn’t move the plot forward or say something about the character saying it, throw it out!

2. Doesn’t rely on itself as a crutch.

Dialogue shouldn’t be a crutch used in place of quality storytelling. Explain the minimum, draw in the audience, and trust in their brains’ ability to fill in the rest. Max Max: Fury Road and Interstellar are two recent great examples.

3. Distinguishes each character.

Every character should be recognizable and distinguishable by their dialogue alone, using cadence, vocabulary, and communication style to make it clear who is speaking without having a character name attached. When this rule is followed, the reader’s brain will fill in the character names for them, especially when reading stage and screenplays.

4. Isn’t redundant.

Don’t repeat information we’ve already heard or can see for ourselves. Don’t tell us about the action; show it to us. Cut down redundant beats and never say the same thing twice unless the tactic, subtext or context has changed.

5. Is appropriate to tone, setting, and time period.

Comedy dialogue should be funny. Thriller dialogue should be terse. Emotional dialogue should be heartfelt and passionate. When writing in a certain time period or language, be sure to do thorough research to ensure the dialogue feels authentic.

6. Doesn’t try to be real conversation.

This is a common mistake. Dialogue is not actual conversation. Dialogue is purposefully written in a way which reveals character and story, using tactics appropriate to the character to overcome obstacles and achieve a particular goal. In contrast, real-life conversation is vague and messy, filled with “well” and “um,” conflicting internal monologues and complex, muddy intentions and psychology, leading to what we hear on the surface.

7. Avoids hedges and fences.

Well, um, you know? Opening and ending sentences with these little words bogs down pacing, takes up valuable space, and decreases the strength of each line while wearing on the receiver’s nerves. Why? They’re essentially filler. While people say these things all the time in real life, characters are not real people and dialogue is not real conversation.

8. Minimizes direct exposition.

This is a big one screenwriting. If characters stand around and explain the story through direct exposition (which is telling, not showing), then the audience gets cheated out of sharing the experience of those events with the characters, which is how we build a relationship with them and grow to like, love, or hate them. Rather than revealing backstory or though processes through dialogue, try showing the characters make these decisions and take action to illustrating the story. Although there are some exceptions in TV writing and lower budget films, it’s still a standard guideline follow wherever possible.

9. Avoids tired clichés.

Avoid clichés like the plague. Rather, don’t use them at all, unless making a joke (see previous sentence). They stick out like a sore thumb (sorry), highlight lazy storytelling, and, more than anything, each instance bumps the audience out of immersion in the story’s world.

10. Doesn’t reveal major story points without evidence or setup.

Building on previous points, avoid advancing the plot through direct exposition via dialogue, especially when there has been no previous evidence or setup to clue the audience into the characters’ though processes or clue-seeking. It cheats the audience out of shared experience with the characters, delivers exposition clumsily, and leaves the audience out of the loop. Never leave the audience out of the loop. The story is for them, after all.

 

Want help on your dialogue? Let us know. Storysci is here to help!

10 Things Mad Max: Fury Road Did Right

Just like landmark action movies The Matrix in 1999 or Die Hard way back in 1988, Mad Max: Fury Road did something wonderful for the genre: It raised the bar by doing everything right. Instead of approaching the genre as a throwaway story filled with fluff and nonsense, George Miller invested the film with great characters, a powerful villain, and a thrilling story which stops to explain or justify itself.

How did they do it? Let’s take a moment to point out 10 things Mad Max: Fury Road did perfectly.

1. The Storytelling is Lean and Mean

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Fury Road doesn’t try to cram more story into the movie than necessary. In the words of a Los Angeleno vegetarian: It’s all organic.

2. All Show, No Tell

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One of the best examples of the SHOW, DON’T TELL storytelling mantra in modern film.

3. It Doesn’t Over-Explain

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Nearly everything is implied and we understand it perfectly, once again proving that gopod story doesn’t need to over-explain itself because the audience will get it.

4. Creative Action Sequences

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It skips the typical action movie tropes to make each sequence unique and exciting.

5. Rich World with Implied Culture and Backstory

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We experience a rich world filled with implied culture and backstory without beating us over the head with it. Did I mention the film doesn’t explain anything and we still understand all of it?

6. Everything Makes Sense

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Everything makes sense within the world, from the self-sacrificing Val-halla religious ideals to the electric guitar player’s battle music.

7. Strong Female Characters

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…even in a man’s world and in situations where they were “helpless.” You won’t be seeing any stereotypical Hollywood token resistance from these ladies!

8. A Strong Antagonistic Force

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Immortan Joe pursues the protagonistic forces through the powerful force of his desire. Yes this same alpha male patriarch overturns his own car to avoid killing his own pregnant wife. Empathy? That’s the beauty of it. Since only see him in terms of his will versus that of the protagonist forces, other aspects of his character remain somewhat ambiguous, creating a more complex antagonist.

9. Proves CGI is No Replacement for Good Storytelling

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Are the visuals incredible? Yes. But rather than relying on CGI as a crutch in place of good storytelling, Fury Road uses its SFX as a storytelling tool — the way it should be.

10. It Never Stops Entertaining

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Rule #1: Never stop entertaining; don’t be boring. Here’s hoping filmmakers will take a cue from Fury Road and set out to make even an “action flick” a great cinematic experience.