The word for this entry in the Top 6 Words series is “sky.” My Top 6 list of “sky” movies after the jump, but try to come up with your own favorites before you peek at mine. Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Missing the cut: Yellow Sky (1948), a William Wellman western with Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark. I saw this long enough ago that I don’t remember it well; possibly it would enter the list if I saw it again. There is also Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), a plucky piece of retro-pulp that should leave a stronger impression than it does. Only Charlie Chan completists should bother with the last entry in the 44-film series, The Sky Dragon (1949).
6. Sky High (2005)
This Disney movie is sort of like The Incredibles in reverse: instead of a family of superheroes trying to find acceptance in a world which shuns them, here is a story of a boy who fears he isn’t a superhero but needs to be to make his superhero parents proud. The action centers around Sky High, which is just what it sounds like: a high school in the sky, which specializes in training superheroes to fight crime and save the world. Though trite at times, the film presents an imaginatively realized world with nice moments of comedy.
5. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Cameron Crowe’s faithful remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, a surreal psychological thriller that doubles back on itself like a Mobius strip, suffers only by comparison, and then only a little. It’s not quite as tight, and I question certain soundtrack choices, but otherwise this is a tense, sometimes creepy, always intriguing film. While I grow weary of movies that take wild twists just for the sake of it, I love movies that do so and substantiate them somehow, this time by delving deep into the complex psychology of the central character. Once you figure out what happens in this, it’s an intriguing pursuit (though not necessary to enjoy the film) to try to figure out why it happens and what that says about our subconsciouses.
4. No Highway In the Sky (1951)
They don’t make movies like this anymore. No Highway In the Sky is an unusual film and is hard to classify into a genre. There are elements of comedy and disaster thriller, but at its heart it’s simply the story of a scientist unsuccessfully trying to convince people that a particular new type of aircraft is unsafe to fly. More interesting are his efforts to reconcile his conflicting emotions about where his responsibilities as a scientist lie. Although it sounds like a heavy and possibly frustrating film, in fact it is neither, thanks to Jimmy Stewart’s ever-watchable performance and an amusing flair.
3. Laputa: Castle In the Sky (1986)
Hayao Miyazaki follows up his first signature film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, with an even better film, which combines environmental fantasy with retro-technological wonders of the sort Jules Verne or H.G. Wells might have written about. There are floating islands and pirates and fantastical machines, and the fate of the world depends upon a couple of kids. So far, this synopsis could apply to any number of Miyazaki films, couldn’t it? But his movies never feel like they’re repeating themselves. Each one holds wonders all its own.
2. Cabin In the Sky (1943)
1943, a pretty segregated time, saw the release of two enchanting all-black musicals. I prefer the other one, Stormy Weather, by a nose, but both are delightful. In Cabin In the Sky, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is torn between the angel and the devil whispering in his ears. That sets up a lighthearted but surprisingly complex story about faith and temptation. Of course the real reason to see this is the wonderful jazz music and breathtaking dancing. The cast includes such musical legends as Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, all in top form.
Inexplicably, Warner Brothers released this film with an apology for racism in the film. Had they seen it? There is nothing racist here at all. To perceive racism in this film, you have to bring it with you. The main character, for example, gambles compulsively and cheats on his wife. That’s the premise of the story. But to see that as a stereotype requires one to see the character neither as an individual nor as a human being with universal temptations but simply as a black man. This couldn’t be more different than the view the film itself takes towards any of its characters.
The spiritual side of the film does bother me, however. In the film’s portrayal of spiritual judgment, the main character will only get to heaven if he leads a good life. Certainly repentance is a step God wants us to make. But the Bible teaches that no one can be “good” enough to earn one’s way into heaven. If one could, what use would there have been for Christ’s sacrifice? It is “not of works” but “by grace are ye saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The main character is a sinner, as we all are, but you don’t earn forgiveness simply by ceasing to sin. Imagine a bank robber pleading for mercy in court because, well, he may have robbed the one bank, but by gum he’d changed his ways and hadn’t robbed any since. The punishment for the crime must still be carried out; only faith that Jesus Christ already took that punishment upon himself has saving power.
This distinction would not have been lost on the Christian culture this film depicts. It’s the one aspect of the film that rings falsely. The rest is sheer joy.
1. October Sky (1999)
Fun fact: this film got its name because it’s an anagram of the original title, Rocket Boys, which is more descriptive. It’s a true story about a kid who grows up in a mining town. He is less than thrilled about his apparently inevitable fate of working in the mines, but he dreams about rockets and teaches himself how they work and how to build them. The community, and his father in particular, take exception to the boy’s hobby, but his passion is too great to contain.
What makes the film work so well is how nuanced it is in its portrayal of the lives these characters lead. Most of us probably haven’t grown up in places like this, but the film makes them feel real. We understand why these characters think and feel the way they do. We understand the problems and pressures they face. The film handles them with compassion and a light, sometimes almost magical touch.