9 Blockbusters with Hearts and Brains

Not all box office blockbusters are full of explosions. These nine films not only had good ticket sales, they've endured because of their intelligent stories and empathetic characters.

For everyday cinemagoers and film buffs alike, the term ‘blockbuster’ has tended to occupy a space in public consciousness retained specifically for high-grossing, lowbrow pieces of action-fueled spectacle – created specifically for the sole advancement of pop corn, and soda sales.

But despite the existing big-studio ‘sequel’ culture, it is worth remembering that some of the highest grossing films of all time (i.e. some of the biggest blockbusters of all) are in fact, intelligent, and gripping pieces of mass-produced art. In reality, the Hollywood stereotype perpetuated by films such as The Player and Swimming with Sharks, which seem to present the Hollywood behemoth and its ‘suits’ as people who can make or break a ‘movie’, or indeed, the popular landscape are, well, largely false. If anything, these representations exist more to boost the egos of the so-called executive themselves. I mean, doesn’t anyone find it ironic that a movie that perpetuates a negative vision of Hollywood, can actually be made within the Hollywood studio system? Surely, the purpose must be self-serving.

But, I digress. My point is that it is the mass public, who are the most influential taste brokers. As such, I am here to open up a dialogue that encompasses diverse ‘quality’ films (whatever that may mean to you personally) that have managed to secure mass audiences. I have listed here nine films as a starting point to the discussion. We would love to hear what other movies you can bring to the table.

Please do so by listing them in the comments section!

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

ETFrom the U.S. to the Far East, Stephen Spielberg’s masterpiece has played an iconic role in the lives of many. The story of a young boy in a yard, who has his whimsical imagination emboldened by the arrival of a creature from outer space, is more than just a piece of straight-laced science fiction.

Rather, it is filled with innocence, hope and a call for unity (despite our differences). With iconic lines (“E.T. Phone home”), and illuminated scenes (E.T. on his bike soaring through the sky), and a thrilling ride to boot (Universal Studios) – E.T. has become a picture synonymous with the unbridled discovery that occurs during childhood.

The Godfather (1972)

GodfatherIt is hard in this small capacity to sum up the splendor of a film that has helped shape the entire genre of gangster and Mafia motion pictures. From HBO’s The Sopranos to Goodfellas to Pulp Fiction to Get Shorty – the marks of The Godfather are unmistakeably clear.

Palpable tension abounds from the very first moments on screen, as Marlon Brando sits purposefully stroking his cat in his thicketed study. Soon, the inner world of the Mafia is exposed – but lo and behold, instead of judging these characters, we find ourselves empathizing for them. With this, Francis Ford Coppola reshaped popular perceptions of not only the Mafia, but also the patriarchal ‘family’ – reminding us of the merits placed on family loyalty.

Forrest Gump (1994)

ForrestGumpForrest Gump is a motion picture that takes us through every significant event in American history between the 1950s and the 1980s – revealing the world with the excitable curiosity of its protagonist, Forrest, a challenged man who is able to make us laugh and cry. Forrest’s journey (and Tom Hank’s performance) is a reassuring testament to the wondrous human spirit, and its ability to persevere against the odds, whatever they may be.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1978)

Who would have thought that a film set in a mental hospital would be a critical and box office sensation? Of course, unlike the Prozac Nation’s of this world, Milos Foreman’s picture buzzes with a fervent comedic zeal. Anchored by Jack Nicholson’s performance, Cuckoo’s Nest becomes more of a black comedy about rebellion, during the psychedelic era of the Vietnam War, as opposed to a drama. Almost willfully ignoring the complexities of mental illness, the film is instead, a wonderful romp about American mores and manners, told during one of the most exciting times in recent history.

Jack Nicholson in one flew over the cukoo nest

Grease (1978)

GreaseRarely does a movie sink into public consciousness the way Grease has. Slick-backed haircuts, and high-wasted pants became the rage soon after, not to mention, the world – propelled by a newfound sexual freedom, used the film as one of the defining centerpieces of teenage liberation. Of course, beyond the popular hype, there lies a simple love affair that is more rooted in the traditional conventions of romantic comedy, than the explosive mainstream blockbuster film.

Rocky (1976)

RockyThe story of Rocky, a punk from the streets of Philly who gets a shot at the world championships, is the kind of syrupy movie formula one comes to expect from Hollywood. But as Roger Ebert once said, “Rocky isn’t about a story; it’s about a hero.” Sylvester Stallone, looking like a young Marlon Brando turns in a breakthrough performance that reminds us of cinema’s unique place in contemporary fiction. It reminds us that cinema isn’t just about straightforward narrative. Rather it is indicative of how the melding of performance, with vision and sound, can help tell a story that is inimitably breath taking.

Home Alone (1990)

HomeAloneLike E.T., Home Alone occupies a ritualistic place in many of our childhoods, namely filling up the television waves during the holiday season. Yet, unlike the conventional saccharine fare, Home Alone is filled with the irreverent excitement that children have when posed with adult opportunities. Utilizing raucous physical humor, and coupling in stellar turns by Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern, from a script by John Hughes, Home Alone possesses all of the vital qualities for a classic motion picture.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

LawrenceOfArabiaDavid Lean’s sprawling, Lawrence of Arabia is the kind of film that one never expects would be made under the guise of the studio system. At over four hours long, with no women or love story to think of, it is shocking when one considers retrospectively just how much of a box office success it was. But what is so magical about the film is that it is the kind of motion picture that can only be truly appreciated in a movie theater. A speck of dust in the distance soon forms into a human being, expansive desert vistas consume the screen (allowing the viewer to feel a sense of true isolation), small on plot details – the film isn’t about a traditional narrative arc, rather it is about epic ideas and characters, and allowing them to flourish onto the screen in a way that would be impossible through any other medium.

The Dark Knight (2008)

DarkKnightTo round off the list, I use one of the most stunning contemporary examples. It is true that comic books and graphic novels have sourced some of the most enthralling movies as of late: Iron Man, the Spider Man Trilogy, the X-Men Trilogy, Watchmen, Sin City, ad nauseam. But none is as craftily executed, or as dense with character details, as The Dark Knight. Specifically, Batman and The Joker bristle through the 2D surface of the screen – coming to life as fully formed characters, which we can relate to and feel empathy for. It is no surprise then that after the Dark Knight’s release, critics and fans alike professed “Batman isn’t just a comic anymore.” The Batman picture had become an emblematic human tragedy, surpassing the generic confines and expectations that had cheapened so many of its predecessors.

Omar Kholeif

Omar is a writer and film curator based in between Glasgow & Liverpool, UK. He is also a Contributing Editor to Primer Magazine. Please visit: www.everythingok.co.uk, for more information.