9. The Way Back (2010)
Seven men escape from a Gulag in Siberia during WWII and undertake a desperate trek to freedom thousands of miles south to the Himalayas.
Peter Weir’s final film is an epic journey of survival that makes you feel like you’ve undergone a trial of endurance yourself. It has a starry cast including Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan, but there’s no glamour or vanity here. Everyone looks unwashed, ungroomed, with terrible teeth, and is alternately frost bitten and horribly sunburned.
Because The Way Back is essentially a Hollywood film, it was always going to be mostly in English, but the decision for the characters to speak some lines in their native tongues and the rest in an accent is distracting, even if we’re supposed to believe it’s for the American’s benefit. As arduous as their journey is shown to be, it’s also easy to lose track of the group’s progress and the passage of time.
8. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Maverick English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) inspires his students at a prestigious prep school but clashes with the inflexible establishment of the institution.
The thing that makes this work, aside from its sheer earnestness and quotability (“O captain, my captain…”), is Williams’ iconic Oscar-nominated central performance that came during the period he was at the very top of his game.
Early on, Mr Keating gets his bemused class to rip out the introduction of their poetry textbook which reduces the worth of poetry to a formula for being “excrement”. The film’s strength is undoubtedly how strongly it can make you feel for these characters who are just trying to express themselves. If there’s one criticism you could make of Dead Poets Society, it’s that not all of the boys’ journeys are created equal and some inevitably hit harder than others.
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7. The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) lands in Indonesia in 1965 to cover the military coup to overthrow the country’s president. During his line of work, Hamilton falls for Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) who is already married and working at the British embassy. He is assisted in his increasingly life-threatening reporting by expat photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt).
Peter Weir collaborated with Mel Gibson on back-to-back projects, the young Australian quickly proving why he became one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 80s and 90s.
Yes, it is pretty dodgy that they got a white actor in, gave her a haircut and caked her in makeup to play an Asian man. And yet, Hunt absolutely deserved her Best Actress Oscar win for her performance as Billy. She is striking, nuanced and avoids easy shortcuts. Gibson and Weaver have good chemistry too, and the film’s political thriller elements make an admirable attempt at making sense of a chaotic time in a country’s complex history.