At the specialty box office this weekend, Richard Linklater's Boyhood is making great strides. The film is currently sitting with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been the critical and audience favorite at every festival at which its shown. The film is currently in limited release in Los Angeles and New York, but rolls out almost everywhere in North America next Friday, July 18.
The film follows Mason, a young Texas boy, as he goes from childhood, the divorce of his parents, puberty, and ultimately to graduating high school and heading off to college. The story alone is one that involves a grand scope. It's a lifetime of a story. What makes Boyhood even more special is that Linklater decided to film the movies with the same cast over the course of the story's time frame. This means Ellar Coltraine, who plays Mason, literally grows up before your eyes. The film was shot over the course of 12 years, for a few months each year. It was quite the undertaking for the director of Dazed and Confused that had a risky payoff. If it didn't work, that's a lot of effort over the years. Luckily, it seems to have worked perfectly.
Ambitious stories and films can be hit or miss with critics and audiences. Last year's Cloud Atlas was a huge piece of film for the Wachowski directing team that didn't quite click in the end. Gravity, on the other hand, was a multi-year undertaking that paid off. An ambitious film usually involves a grand budget or an unbelievable premise. The following are ten of the Most Ambitious Films of All Time. While they may not have all ended with a great box office or critical acclaim, there's no doubt that each film and the stories behind each film are full of passion from everyone involved.
10. Watchmen (2009)
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley
Since maybe 2005, super hero movies should have been an easy sell. While adults admit to liking Iron Man and The Avengers, a super hero film based on an adult graphic novel should've fit right into the niche. Unfortunately, Watchmen didn't quite resonate the way it was supposed to. The set-up is simple: an alternate 1985 where former super heroes live is shaken by the murder of a close friend. Vigilante activities begin and dark, heavy, graphic-induced scene after scene whips us around this interesting world Zack Snyder has created. The acting is fine. The costumes are mostly fine (though someone forgot Billy Crudup's). The opening sequence, featuring a Bob Dylan ballad, is great. There was just something missing in Snyder's giant pot of ingredients.
9. The Fountain (2006)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn
Aronofsky is one modern cinema's most ambitious directors, period. Look at his canon of work: Requiem for a Dream, Pi, Black Swan. We won't mention this year's ambitious take on Noah. But, more times that naught, Aronofsky has delivered original and empowering images on screen. The Fountain was meant to follow in that line and Aronofsky himself called it his passion project. I think that may be the ultimate goal on if a film makes it or not. Some directors are so ambitious that it's almost impossible to fully capture what the overall vision is meant to be. Aronofsky's film has plenty of fans and much can be said about some of the film's aspects, particularly the score by Clint Mansell (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination), but critics didn't quite get it and audiences were left in much of a misunderstood stupor. The marketing didn't sell it very well and the box office suffered.
8. The Matrix (1999)
Directed by The Wachowski Brothers
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Every much an exciting film as it is a piece of groundbreaking and trendsetting art, The Matrix was immediately a hugely buzzed-about project. You can thank this film for every single slow motion bullet scene or ridiculously choreographed adn digitally-enhanced fight scene in every movie since. The Wachowski Brothers had a clear vision and stopped at nothing to bring it to screen. While special effects can feel dated very quickly, lucky for The Matrix, it was genre-defining enough to get a pass in that regard (plus, many of the effects still hold up pretty well). Unfortunately, the magic that was this 1999 classic went straight to the Wachowski's and studio's heads and the resulting sequels weren't quite as exciting or groundbreaking as this giant. 1999 was a great year for cinema and this is just reason why. It's also a clear example of what ambition and money can do. Notice I didn't mention Keanu Reeves or his performance...dude.
7. Waterworld (1995)
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Starring Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Dennis Hopper
I'm probably going to lose a little credibility here, but 10 year old me thought this movie was awesome and I still, to this day, don't really mind it. I can understand some of the film's backlash, but not all of it. It has its cheesy, over-the-top moments (what 80s or 90s action film didn't?) and it had "I'm trying to win an Oscar because Dances with Wolves was so awesome" Kevin Costner in full force, but the concept and most of the payoff actually worked. If you don't believe me, give it another try. Plus, Dennis Hopper is the bad guy. As far as ambition goes, this is all Costner. While he didn't direct the film (though he's listed as an uncredited director on Imdb, which means, to me, that he had pretty much all say in what we see on screen), Costner was the driving force behind the unique idea of what would happen if the world were to be covered in water, thanks to that darn global warming. Maybe Aronofsky should've remade this film instead of Noah. The big studio money spent on this special effects and water-heavy film never really paid off. It was a dud. An ambitious dud.
6. Cleopatra (1963)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison
The story behind this film is almost more exciting that the film itself (unless you cast Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor in a telling of the story behind this film). Even just watching the film now it's easy to see how ambitious of an undertaking it was back in the 60s. The film runs right around 4 hours and features old Hollywood sets and costumes like I wish we still used today. It's budget was $44 million back then, which translates to around $300 million today. So, ambitious run-time, ambitious sets/costumes, ambitious story, ambitious budget. This is a recipe for a classic film, right? Well, in regards, yes. Elizabeth Taylor is at her Elizabeth Taylor-est as Egypt's most famous female historic character. Rex Harrison earned an Oscar nomination. Sadly, audience members weren't quite willing to sit that long. Despite sold out screenings, the film didn't have long legs at all and the studio never quite recouped its budget (which included at $200,000 costume budget alone for Taylor's costumes). This one ranks on here more for how its ambitiousness may have killed it. It may be considered a classic now, but for some of the wrong reasons.
5. Brazil (1985)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Starring Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Bob Hoskins, Kim Greist
A crazy sci-fi film, Terry Gilliam's Brazil was an instant classic when released, despite its many, many problems with the studio. Gilliam even, at one point, bought an ad in Variety designed to look like a funeral invitation asking the studio when they were going to release his film. The Monty Python alum pieced together this amalgam of futuristic scenes as part of his Trilogy of Imagination, which includes Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Manchausen. What makes this film so ambitious is the fact that Gilliam was willing to wait it out and do anything he could to get the studio to let the film be released his way. It was his vision. It was his passion project. Studiohead Sid Sheinberg was vocal about not wanting to let the film be released in its current state. After countless vocal battles on television and in newspapers, Gilliam was finally allowed to release his film his way. A classic is born.
4. Avatar (2009)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Well, after the juggernaut that was Titanic (which will get to in a second), James Cameron had to go and try to top himself. It's the highest box office earning movie in history (which is a little unfair because movie ticket prices are ridiculous and this was sold as a must-see 3D event) and used groundbreaking technology. Cameron is more of a technological innovator than he is strictly a director and Avatar was his science experiment. Because of the focus on the graphics and effects, Avatar got a pass on story, dialogue, and character development. 2009 was a weird year for movies, which made it a great year for Cameron to release this long-gestating project. Unfortunately, though, technology has already advanced enough (did you see Gravity?) that Avatar now just looks like an over-produced cartoon. Cameron's ambitious mind hasn't stopped, yet, because there are currently 3 more Avatar films in the works. Yes, you read that right, THREE.
3. Titanic (1997)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates
Have we talked about James Cameron yet? Where Avatar was grand in technological scope, Titanic tops that with a film that literally appealed in some way to any film fan. There's romance. There's cheesy lines (in the best way). There's action. There's violence. There's a boat that sinks. My favorite thing now are all of the kids born around that time who are confused when they hear of Titanic and don't realize it was an actual event. That's like saying the Civil War never happened, it was just a movie starring Clark Gable. Titanic previously held the title for the movie with the highest box office (which I feel it more deserved because tickets weren't as expensive...I mean, it literally played for a solid year in cinemas with decent audiences for each showing...for a year) until Avatar stole the title. DiCaprio was already an Oscar-nominated star, but this catapulted him into movie stardom. Cameron had a few struggles with the studio to get the funds for this. The search for the real Titanic had been a passion of his (he was directly involved in finding the ship back in 1985) which only made sense once you see the detail and the patience involved in bringing the ship back to life.
2. Star Wars (1977)
Directed by George Lucas
Starring Harrison Ford, Luke Skywalker, Priness Leia
It's official title now is Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, but for the sake of not typing all of that out (even though I just did), I'm calling it Star Wars. It was Lucas' first foray into the sci-fi world, officially, and it wasn't necessarily supposed to be a classic. The studio, despite spending a small fortune, had written it off as a possible blockbuster, but nothing more. Lucas knew it'd be more than that, though. Similar to Cameron, Lucas is in the business of creating exciting worlds while also reinventing the filmmaking process. Star Wars is special for many facets. It introduced sci-fi to a broader audience. It introduced new effects never seen before. It allowed us to one day get to meet Jar Jar Binks. Lucas' story alone, despite beginning in the middle instead of the beginning, is the epitome of a very-involved sci-fi story that only die hard fans will ever fully understand, but it's still entertaining enough for your casual fan. Oh, and I was kidding about Jar Jar Binks. We all hate him, George Lucas.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
Stanley Kubrick may be the most ambitious director of the modern era. A Clockwork Orange was highly demented and engrossing at the same time. The Shining, while not necessarily a faithful adaptation of the Stephen King story, is an interesting enough piece of filmwork. Over and over again Kubrick, for the most part, has brought unbelievable images to the screen. There are scenes in each of his films that are easily some of the most memorable of all time. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a broad story of evolution from one moment in time to the next. It's a futuristic piece of a story just as much as it's a narrative of the past. While your own personal beliefs of life and forms and the future may not be alined (it's a movie, people), there's not denying to interesting scope of this film. It'd be like Terrence Malick deciding to make The Tree of Life in space rather than the Midwest. Audiences were mystified when the film was released. It's trippy undertones and vivid imagery didn't quite sit well with the average moviegoer. It ended up being a success, over time, once word-of-mouth and, maybe drugs, helped the film reach a larger crowd. Arthur C. Clarke once said, "If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered." That idea alone probably makes this the riskiest and most ambitious film of all time.