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Best Heroes of 2015


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we’ve reviewed the Best Movies of 2015.  Now it’s time to review the Best Heroes of the year, too.

I can’t wait to see what you’ve picked. Let’s get started…

I evaluated this year’s movie heroes by how memorable they were, how much they grew and transformed as characters, and how much they transformed others. Here’s my top 10 heroes list:

10. Freddie Steinmark in My All-American
9. Adam Jones in Burnt
8. Hugh Glass in The Revenant
7. Joy in Inside Out
6. Rey and Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
5. Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa in Creed
4. Joy Mangano in Joy
3. Mark Watney in The Martian
2. Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold
1. Joy in Room

It looks like you were enjoying a lot of “Joy” in 2015. Like you, I was motivated by the transformation of the hero in the story. But also, we were shown a number of heroes who were survivors. Here are my top 10 heroes:

10. Eggsy in Kingsman
9. Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold
8. Adonis in Creed
7. Hugh Glass in The Revenant
6. Joy in Inside Out
5. Rey in Star Wars
4. Joy Mangano in Joy
3. Mark Watney in The Martian
2. James Donovan in Bridge of Spies
1. Joy in Room


You’re right about all the Joy in this year’s best heroes. This tells me that women played a more prominent role in shining as heroes in the movies, Greg. My Number 5 choice in 2015 was the hero-mentor pairing of Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa in the film Creed. This film and the actors in it should have garnered an Academy Award or two. We have an underdog hero in Adonis, who wants Rocky to train him but Rocky resists. It’s a reluctant mentor story that contains many of the same elements as the classic hero’s journey. The movie, and this hero-mentor duo, are a joy to watch (pardon the pun).

True enough, Scott. However, I thought this was more Adonis’ movie with Rocky playing the secondary role as mentor. Surely, it was Adonis who underwent the greater transformation. Regardless of how you see it, Creed was a great hero’s journey. And the mentor story gave it a one-two punch.

My number 5 pick was Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This reboot of the fan favorite franchise put a woman in the role of the emerging hero. After the first three Star Wars films had barely a single woman in them, it was good to see a not just a prominent female, but also to see such a great mythic hero. Rey starts out an orphan on the dusty planet of Jaku and rises to be the heir to the Force. It’s a great hero’s journey and told in the classic style.

Greg, the best thing about this latest edition of Star Wars was this great hero pairing. Rey and Finn, are outstanding characters whom we grow to love and enjoy rooting for soon after meeting them. Both these characters are cut from that familiar Star Wars heroic cloth — they come from humble origins and are oblivious to their special pedigree. As these characters are tested, they begin to slowly transform into the greatness that was always there beneath the surface.


My Number 4 pick is Joy Mangano in the movie Joy. Joy has all of the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes. She is smart, strong, charismatic, kind, caring, inspiring, resilient, and reliable. Her journey is tortured yet profoundly satisfying in the end. I was struck by the sea of humanity standing in the way of her dreams as well as by the people who came through for her to help her achieve her goals. Joy is transformed from a human doormat into a soaring business force to be reckoned with.

Joy and Rey as well as other heroes in my top 5 represent the survivor hero that was strongly represented this year. Joy was defeated. She had lost everything. The evil Texas businessman had stolen her product and tied her patent up in court. Then she did something so many heroes do – she changed her appearance. There’s this great scene where Joy dons black jeans and a leather jacket. And looking in the mirror, she bobs her hair. She makes the transformation from housewife to serious businesswoman. This is a common event for heroes – the transformation is marked by a change of attire and appearance. Joy was a joy to watch.


My number 3 pick was Mark Watney from the superb The Martian. Watney is another survivor hero. He draws upon all his scientific knowledge to eek out a meager existence on the desolate landscape of Mars. It’s a great story and a powerful lesson to pay attention in class. But seriously, there are secondary heroes aplenty in this movie with the ground crew trying to find a solution to rescue Watney and his team in the spaceship above weighing the cost of turning back for him. What a wild ride.

Watney was my Number 3 pick as well. Watney travels the full hero’s journey, and in every phase of the journey we witness a richness and depth that is rarely seen in the movies. As with Joy Mangano (see above), Watney displays all eight characteristics in the Great Eight traits of heroes. He becomes transformed from ordinary astronaut to an exceptionally innovative, pioneering colonist who rises to the challenge of surviving where no human has any right to survive. It’s a rich and utterly fulfilling journey of a hero.


My Number 2 pick was Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold. These are two divergent heroes who enjoy a great chemistry. They each undergo a transformation albeit in different ways. Their most significant transformation is helping bring about much needed ethnic tolerance in Austria. By contesting the Austrians’ decisions to retain the painting, and then by finally winning a long, highly publicized arbitration battle, Maria and Schoenberg forced the Austrians to finally “own” their part in the atrocities of WW2.

I was touched by how Maria’s mission invoked a transformation in Schoenberg. He started as a mildly ambitious lawyer with little interest in his Jewish heritage. But tranformed into a staunch defender of his culture. It was a wonderful story of hero-mentorship.

My number 2 pick James Donovan in Bridge of Spies. Donovan didn’t have a clear mentor in his story. He was guided by his strong belief in the Constitution. There’s a great scene where an FBI man says “There is no rule book here,” and Donovan replies: “There is a rule book. We call it the Constitution.” He stands up for a man who is clearly an enemy to the United States because it is our deeply held belief that every man is innocent until proven guilty. And he puts up with hatred and vitriol to the point of being shot at. It’s a great story of a man standing his ground for what he believes is right.

Donovan was an extraordinary hero. The fact that he undergoes two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s mission isn’t enough for him. This movie needed two interlinked hero’s journeys, if only to show that Donovan’s deft skill in sparing Abel’s life in the first journey allowed for the opportunity for him to spare the lives of two other men in the second. Donovan didn’t make my list of best heroes because he doesn’t really transform at all in the story. Still, his double-heroic journey is noteworthy.


My Number 1 hero of the year was the character of Joy in the highly acclaimed movie Room. Her character follows a very unconventional hero’s path by beginning in the dangerous special world and moving into the safe familiar world. Except that the safe familiar world is toxic for her and reminds her of all the reasons she wanted to escape from it in the first place. Her journey is heartwrenching and is made possible, in part, by the strength and resilience shown by her young son.

I also picked Joy from Room. She fits in with my survivor hero pattern for 2015. Joy had to use all her cunning to defeat the villain “Old Nick.” She taught her son how to fake his own death. And once she was out of the “Room” she had to mentor her son in the wide-open world. It’s a fantastic story of survival.

Well, Scott. That rounds out our top ten heroes for 2015. It was a good year for heroes. I was pleased with the number of women and minorities we saw this year. Although the Oscars didn’t reflect that at all. I’m looking forward to what 2016 holds for us.

While Hollywood is incorporating more gender and racial diversity into its heroes, the industry still isn’t acknowledging them at Oscar time. Look for more women and people of color to take home some serious hardware next year.

We hope you enjoy our current 2016 reviews at Reel Heroes. And if you get a chance, check out our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains.



Best Villains of 2014

We just got through reviewing the Best Heroes of 2014, Scott. Now let’s pick the Best Villains of 2014.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

The phrase “best villains” sounds like an oxymoron, but it is actually a paradoxical truth: The better the villain, the more we love to hate him or her.

I picked my villains for how insidious they could be, or how they transformed from one state to another in the film.

Greg’s Top 10 Villains:

10: Time (Interstellar, Imitation Game, The Fault In Our Stars)
9: Disease (Cancer in The Fault In Our Stars & ALS in The Theory of Everything)
8: Koba (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)
7: The Bird (Unbroken)
6: Walter Keane (Big Eyes)
5: Madame Mallory (The Hundred Foot Journey)
4: Racism/George Wallace (Selma)
3: Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)
2: Terence Fletcher (Whiplash)
1: Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler)

For me, a villain’s strength lies in the character’s backstory and depth of development. I love a villain to the extent that we gain an understanding of the origins of his or her villainy. Also, the more complex and realistic the character, the better.

Scott’s Top 10 Villains:

10: Madame Mallory (The Hundred Foot Journey)
9: Trask and the Sentinels (X-Men: Days of Future Past)
8: Alexander Pierce and Brock Rumlow (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
7: Teddy (The Equalizer)
6: Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler)
5: Koba (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)
4: Max Dillon and Harry Osborne (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)
3: Maleficent (Maleficent)
2: Terence Fletcher (Whiplash)
1: Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)


It looks like we have some villains in common. Let’s review each of our top five villains, starting with my #5 pick – Madame Mallory from The Hundred Foot Journey. When an Indian family moves in across from her French restaurant and opens their own restaurant, she is appalled. The newcomers have invaded her space and have interfered with her goal of raising her 4-star restaurant to 5-stars. She starts to sabotage the new restaurant by buying out all their ingredients at the local farmer’s market. The tit-for-tat battle increases until one of her chefs attempts to burn the Indian restaurant down and injures their young chef. This is when Madame Mallory realizes that she has gone too far and has a change of heart. She takes in the young chef and teaches him the ways of fine French cuisine and becomes his mentor. I loved this “redemptive villain” and felt we got a nice look at her backstory as well as a look into her inner self.

Madame Mallory was my 10th most favorite movie villain in 2014. What I loved about her character was her transformation from villain to hero. The reasons for her original villainy are clearly spelled out; she feels threatened by the new upstart Indian restaurant that has opened across the street. But gradually she reveals her human side and is won over by the good nature of the Indian family. This change of heart struck me as both realistic and inspiring.

My #5 choice was Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Koba portrays a character that exudes tragic realism. He is an ape who has been abused and tortured by the humans. Koba has lost the ability to trust and carries around a great deal of anger and a need for revenge. As a result, he cannot fathom Caesar’s open-mindedness about striking up a positive relationship with a group that once physically and emotionally scarred his fellow apes. Koba’s character struck a chord with me, as his experience illustrates a central reason why there is so much inter-group conflict in our world today.

I rated Koba as my #8 villain of 2014. As you point out, we get some of the reasons for Koba’s hostility towards humans. Eventually, his hatred turns him against Caesar and he attempts to murder him and sets fire to the village – blaming the humans. We see in Koba very real and human actions and I enjoyed his descent into villainy, treachery, and betrayal.


My #4 pick is the institutional racism from the movie Selma. Sometimes it’s hard to portray an idea as a character in a movie. To deal with this, Selma uses Alabama Governor George Wallace as the face of racism. Wallace refuses to intervene in anything that happens in his state that interferes with Blacks getting the right to vote. Not only that, but he won’t reign in the sheriff of Selma, Jim Clark, who uses his posse of men to beat and even kill innocent Blacks. Racism is a blind and mindless villain which Selma shined a bright light on.

The racist hatred of Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover is certainly vile, but it didn’t make my top-10 list. For me, the movie Selma was more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s heroic and courageous fight against those racist institutional barriers than it was about those barriers themselves. Still, I understand your inclusion of this important and tragic phenomenon in American history (and, sadly, in America today as well).

My #4 pick was a pair of villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Max Dillon and Harry Osborne. This villain pairing impressed me because the filmmakers went out of their way to show us the genesis of their evil. Dillon and Osborne both turned to villainy because they were adversely affected by some traumatic event. They didn’t start out evil; they allowed their pain to skew their moral judgment and determine their life purpose. In this way they are similar to Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I don’t mean to imply that trauma always leads to villainy — consider the story of Batman, who as a child witnessed his parents’ murder. Somehow, heroes use pain to better themselves and the world, whereas villains use pain to avenge the world.

That’s a good observation. I agree that these characters (and most characters in the Marvel universe) are given better backstories. I didn’t vote these guys in because I felt we had seen this story before in dozens of other superhero movies. There were other villains this year who more capably caught my imagination.


Among them was my #3 pick, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. She starts out the film looking very much like the victim of a murder. Her diary entries all point to her husband Nick as a controlling, narcissistic, and unfaithful husband. Just when you’re ready to mentally convict Nick, it’s revealed that Amy is alive and well and is framing Nick from afar. It’s such a shock, and so skillfully delivered we’re blown away. We’re then led through Amy’s vindictive plot step-by-step until she kills an ex-boyfriend and claims he kidnapped and raped her. Amy returns home to Nick and reveals that she’s pregnant with his child (through sperm she froze) and has roped him into a life with her. Amy Dunne is a cold and calculating villain that was as frightening as any since Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

Amy Dunne from Gone Girl was my #1 movie villain of the year. I agree with you, Greg, that she is the ultimate villain, making everyone around her look foolish as they try to keep up with her true motives or her next move. Amy is a force unto herself, literally; there are no henchmen or henchwomen to aid her. She is a true lone villain, perhaps the most formidable force of evil in the movies in 2014. I consider her to be Hollywood’s most memorable villain we’ve seen in years. Her level of malevolence rivals that of Hannibal Lecter. She tops my list because of her magnetism, her backstory, and her ability to surprise us with one chilling act of evil after another.

My #3 pick is the character Maleficent from the movie of the same name. The film is a prequel to Sleeping Beauty and it injects some surprising complexity to the so-called evil queen in that classic fairy tale. We see how Maleficent starts out as quite a benevolent presence in the forest and only turns toward darkness when she is betrayed and disfigured by an evil man. We also are treated to Maleficent’s restoration to her true good self by the transformative power of love. This theme of love having the ability to change people is also present in movies such as Interstellar. Maleficent is a round tripper protagonist, having undergone an evolution from hero to villain then back to hero again.

I so heartily agree with you – except that I categorize Maleficent as a hero, not a villain. She starts out good, is betrayed and through this hurt falls into villainy. Then, through the love of a child, she turns good again. We aren’t treated to this kind of hero’s journey (or is it a villain’s journey) often. I would have included her in my Villain’s list, too – but she was my #3 hero of 2014.


My #2 pick is Terrence Fletcher from Whiplash. Young Andrew Neiman is a first-year music student at Shaffer Conservatory when he meets Fletcher. Fletcher is the conductor of the school’s award-winning jazz ensemble. All Neiman wants is to be the greatest jazz drummer of all time. So when Fletcher invites him to take second seat drum, he jumps at the chance. But it isn’t long before we realize that Fletcher is an extreme perfectionist. He screams at the students when they make the smallest mistake. He hurls a chair at Neiman’s head when he is out of rhythm and slaps him around. By the end of the story, Neiman is demoralized and ready to quit. But he goes back on-stage and drums his heart out – effectively forcing Fletcher to accept him as his drummer. Fletcher is the first villain/mentor I have ever seen, and is a character that will live in my mind for a long, long time.

Terrence Fletcher from Whiplash is my #2 pick, also. Fletcher is an anti-mentor, the type of character who send heroes down dark paths that can lead to ruin. It’s then up to the hero to overcome the dark mentor. Fletcher is a true scumbag and his cruel, self-aggrandizing methods come at the expense of our hero. This film teaches us to be wary of how we choose our mentors; not all of them look out for our best interests. Fletcher is a lying, cold-blooded, abuser who doesn’t quite get his full comeuppance at the end but is nevertheless defeated.


Finally we come to my #1 pick: Louis Bloom of Nightcrawler. Louis starts out as a naive low-level thief of hubcaps and manhole covers. When he stumbles upon a film crew taping late-night accidents, he realizes that he is capable of delivering the same content. Louis then enlists the aid of sidekick intern Rick to work the night. Louis realizes he has to eliminate the competition so cuts the brake line of the van of his nearest foe. Finally, he stages a shooting and films his sidekick getting murdered. Louis Bloom has a chilling villain’s journey where he starts out amoral and falls deeper and deeper into depravity. Since he’s the main character of the story, I would normally call him the hero. But since he’s a villain, I categorize Louis Bloom as the anti-hero.

Louis Bloom of Nightcrawler didn’t make my top 5 list of villains but there’s no doubting the fact that he is Evil with a capital E. Bloom is a classic sociopath who lacks a conscience and has no empathy, remorse, or moral core. He uses people and hurts others to obtain his goals. Nightcrawler is a movie about villainy and how it blossoms. The film shows us how villainy is allowed to prosper when we allow it to prosper, when we condone it, when we cooperate with it, and when we place money ahead of basic principles of decency. I considered including Bloom in my top-5 but we are never told how he become such a scumbag, and without any backstory I just couldn’t include him in my list.


That brings us to the end of another year of movies, heroes, and villains. Tune in throughout 2015 as we continue to review movies and their heroes. We will keep looking at the villains in the movies, and we will start looking at the supporting characters beside them as well. If you haven’t already, check out our Best Movies of 2014 and the Best Heroes of 2014.

Best Heroes of 2014

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we’ve reviewed the Best Movies of 2014. Now it’s time to review the Best Heroes of the year, too.

We saw some great heroes this year, Scott. Let’s jump in

To evaluate this year’s movie heroes, I examined the features of the classic hero journey, especially whether the hero transforms as a result of encounters with allies, mentors, father figures, villains, and love interests.  Here’s my top 10 heroes list:

Scott’s Top 10 Heroes

10: Maleficent (Maleficent)
9: Chris Kyle (American Sniper)
8: Katniss (The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part I)
7: Mason (Boyhood)
6: Vincent and Oliver (St. Vincent)
5: Riggan (Birdman)
4: Cooper (Interstellar)
3: Hazel (The Fault in Our Stars)
2: Triss (Divergent)
1: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma)

I also looked to the hero’s journey for guidance as well as transformation – not necessarily for the hero, but transformation in those around the hero.

Greg’s Top 10 Heroes

10: Riggan (Birdman)
9: Cooper (Interstellar)
8: Katniss (The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part I)
7: Neiman (Whiplash)
6: Triss (Divergent)
5: Hazel (The Fault in Our Stars)
4: Bilbo (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)
3: Maleficent (Maleficent)
2: Alan Turing (The Imitation Game)
1: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma)



You’ve generated a good list, Greg — almost as good as mine! Let’s begin with my #5 choice, Riggan, who is the hero of Birdman. One of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2014, Riggan is an actor who uses his craft to mask his inner demons. He is obsessed with restoring a heroic image that is forever lost, and he must learn to “fly” in a different direction — literally. Riggan’s transformative growth rings true to me and his inspiring flight at the end suggests a magical, triumphant conclusion to his epic journey.

Riggan only made the #10 spot on my list. I liked watching Riggan work through his issues and struggle with being an absent father. He was successfully painted as a tortured man, constantly arguing with his inner Birdman. However, I was troubled with his final resolution to his problems. He shoots himself in the “beak.” I have to wonder if he was trying to kill himself and failed – and that somehow led to his revelation? I’d have to watch the film again to decide. Ultimately, he was at peace with who he was, and that’s a heroic transformation.

My #5 pick was Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars. she starts out in this film as being reclusive and afraid to love others. She meets a young man, Gus, who pulls her out of her shell and gets her to live life while she has it. Tragically, Gus dies, leaving Hazel to feel lost without her soulmate. But finally, she realizes that her time with Gus was worth a lifetime of love and emerges full of life and love.

Hazel is my #3 choice, Greg. I enjoy watching her character become transformed from the influence of Augustus and also of Anne Frank, whose recorded voice in Amsterdam opens Hazel’s heart. The hero journey evokes painful emotions but somehow manages to be uplifting, too. Hazel is an unforgettable hero, and Gus is her unforgettable mentor, lover, friend, and symbol of life and hope. The hero and her friends, allies, and companions are all fully present and are quite moving.


My #4 choice is Cooper from Interstellar. When it comes to hero storytelling, you can’t do much better than this film. Cooper follows the classic hero journey almost to the letter. He is sent out into space (the unfamiliar world) and he is enlisted with the task of saving all of humanity. All heroes are missing some quality, and in Cooper’s case he is missing an understanding of what binds the universe together. The answer is not unlike what Dorothy discovers in The Wizard of Oz — the answer is love, home, and gravity.

I picked Cooper as my #9 hero of the year. Cooper has all the qualities you mention, Scott. He has a deep and abiding love for his daughter. So much so that he risks never seeing her again to save her life. Then, when all seems lost, he returns to her through time and space to send her a message that will either save humanity, or doom it to failure. It’s a heartbreaking scene and one that any father can relate to.

My #4 pick was Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit trilogy. I have to admit that I cheated a bit on this one, as I was rating Bilbo based on his transformation from the beginning of the trilogy, through the end. He starts out as shy, repressed, even fearful of the great beyond. He goes on his journey and takes on the characteristics of the mentor characters he meets. He returns to the shire a confident, strong master of the two worlds. It’s a great Hero’s Journey that people return to again and again.

Bilbo didn’t make my top-10 list for the reason you mention, Greg. I will grant you that Bilbo’s story, in its entirety, follows the classic hero’s journey, but this film only shows us the final leg of that journey. Consequently, I didn’t see him change or evolve much in this particular movie. But there’s no doubt that his character, as a whole, undergoes dramatic growth and is one of the greatest heroes in all of literature.


We already talked about your #3 pick, Scott. So let’s look at my #3 – Maleficent. This was a great story of a character who has traditionally been a villain in the Disney universe. Maleficent is given a full backstory here. She starts out innocent and good – the queen of the fairies. And then is betrayed by the man she loves. She turns evil and casts a spell on the baby princess – but over time learns to love her. She then returns to goodness at the end of the story when she saves the princess. It’s a great “round trip” for our hero, one of the first such stories we’ve reviewed.

Maleficent was my #10 choice. As you point out, her heroic journey follows some non-traditional twists and turns, and underscores the idea that there exists a fine line between heroism and villainy. You and I have had many long discussions about that blurry line and Maleficent shows us that often the same person can occupy the role of both hero and of villain.


Next we turn to my #2 choice, Triss from Divergent. Shailene Woodley is outstanding in her role as Triss, a young woman on a voyage of self-discovery. I found Triss to have far more depth and nuance than Katniss showed in the first two installments of The Hunger Games. Triss spends this movie trying to reconcile others’ expectations of her with her own quest for self-knowledge and self-growth. Divergent has everything one would want in a hero journey here. Triss attracts allies among the Dauntless and is mentored by both her mother and a colleague named Four, who also serves as a love interest. Challenges both physical and intellectual in nature are met and resolved in sometimes surprising ways. The hero journey here is packed to delicious satisfaction.

I liked Triss, too, Scott. Unfortunately I thought her character was a bit of a copy of Katniss, and so she didn’t rise to my top 5. Also, she was a bit too reliant on the men in her life. I did like her transformation from uncertain young girl to a fully realized hero by the end of the story. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her in the coming years.

My #2 slot is occupied by Alan Turing from The Imitation Game. I had some trouble reconciling the events in the movie with actual history. But that doesn’t change my opinion of Turing and his accomplishment. Breaking the Enigma code was quite possibly the event that won the war for the Allies. The whole world owes a debt to Turing that can never be repaid. Turing is a tragic hero because he ultimately takes his own life when the country he saved turns on him for his homosexual lifestyle. It’s a compelling story that I won’t soon forget.

Turing didn’t crack my top 10 but I agree that his hero story is a stirring one. The man has many demons to overcome and makes many enemies. Does his character become transformed the way a good hero should? Perhaps not. Ironically, his refusal to change may be the key to his heroism. Maybe this is a tale about a British society that refuses to transform as much as it is a tale about a hero who shouldn’t need to.


My #1 hero is Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma This film is a powerful portrayal of King’s methods (based on those of Gandhi) of bringing about peaceful social change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in terrific detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move an entire society. The hero story is unique in that it’s less about a hero changing than it is about a hero helping everyone around him change. King guided an entire nation toward moral and spiritual maturity.

We’re in full agreement, here Scott. The thing that impressed me most about King is what he risked. That is something that separates ordinary people from heroes. Martin Luther King, Jr. risked everything to create a more equal status for Blacks in a White-ruled America. He risked his relationship with his wife, time with his children, his standing in the Black community, and even his own life. Selma shows us not only his strength and determination, but also his fears, concerns, and weaknesses. This reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a person like so many of us. And it was his inability to stand by and watch that made him a hero. And so can we all be heroes.


Well, Scott, that brings us to the end of 2014’s best heroes. I’m looking forward to presenting our findings on what makes a great hero in our upcoming book Reel Heroes: Volume 2: The Villains where we’ll also look at what makes a great villain.

Stay tuned for our list of the Best Villains in the movies in 2014!


Best Movies of 2014

Scott, it’s time to look back at the best movies we saw in 2014.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

There was much to admire in the movie industry in 2014. Let’s compare our individual top 10 lists.

For me, I listed my favorite films by how badly I wanted to see them again. I also ranked them based on how much I was entertained. Here’s my list:

Greg’s Top 10

10: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
9: The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay: Part 1
8: The Fault in Our Stars
7: Maleficent
6: Jersey Boys
5: Interstellar
4: Gone Girl
3: Nightcrawler
2: Whiplash
1: Selma

I based my list on the depth of the story and the quality of the filmmaking. Also factored in, of course, was the juiciness of the heroes and villains in the movie. Here’s my list:

Scott’s Top 10

10: Boyhood
9: The Fault in our Stars
8: American Sniper
7: The Imitation Game
6: Unbroken
5: Whiplash
4: St. Vincent
3: Gone Girl
2: Selma
1: Birdman

That’s a great list. I see a few there that were just outside my top 10. It would take too long to go into detail on all 20, so let’s just compare notes on each of our top 5.


You selected Whiplash as your #5 pick, which was my #2. I was captivated by the intensity of J.K. Simmons’ performance as the perfectionist villain/mentor. It was a complex film all about the strength of the commitment of the lead (Miles Teller) to stand up to the unrelenting bullying of his teacher. I was totally sucked in and would definitely see this film again.

Whiplash is a fascinating coming-of-age tale with a dark edge to it. A beastly mentor figure attempts to hurl our hero toward destruction, but with love and encouragement from his good mentor, our hero musters up the strength and courage to outwit his evil foe.

Let’s now turn to your #5 pick, Interstellar. This movie didn’t crack my top 10 list but as a science fiction buff I enjoyed it immensely, Greg. Interstellar made me think, not just feel. We are treated to fabulous CGI effects, but more importantly we are compelled to ponder deeply about our place in the universe and what lengths we would go to save our planet. The integration of love and gravity as the glue that binds us all together is an inspiring take-home message.

It’s true, Scott, this movie was a technical marvel. And it held itself up to high scientific standards. It was made with the best understanding we have today of what interstellar travel would look like. Plus, it was mind-bending in the ways of time distortion and time travel. But for me the clincher was the bond between father and daughter. As the father of two girls, that hit home for me more than anything else. And that’s why Interstellar was in my top 5.


Appearing at #4 on my list is Gone Girl. This was a surprising film, especially if you went in without having read the novel. It starts out looking very much like something out of the tabloids where the husband is a suspect in the disappearance of his wife. Then at the halfway point, we learn that it was the controlling wife who was framing her husband for her own death. The movie takes a sharp turn and the villain and victim are reversed. That made for a thrilling roller coaster ride.

Gone Girl is #3 on my list of Best Movies of 2014. This film is a stylish portrayal of love, treachery, and murderous revenge. It drags us through the muck of human relationships and the nadir of human conduct. I enjoyed this movie despite the fact that afterward I was left feeling alarmed and ashamed of the human race. The film also features one of Hollywood’s most formidable and memorable villains we’ve seen in years. I believe her level of malevolence rivals that of Hannibal Lecter.

Our next movie is St. Vincent, which occupies #4 on my top-10 list. This film packs a powerful emotional punch toward the end — I found myself shedding a tear or two while Vincent’s heroism is being honored by Oliver and others. It’s a poignant tale of an unlikely pairing of people who save each other. St. Vincent is also a great buddy hero story, with young Oliver mentoring Vincent, his mother, and his entire school about the definition and complexity of sainthood.

I liked St. Vincent, too, but not as much as you did. Bill Murray starts out looking like a slob and ne’er do well. But in the end we peel away the onion skin to reveal a sweet core. As much as I liked this film, I didn’t think I’d get anything more from a second look, so it didn’t make my top-10.


At the number 3 spot on my list is Nightcrawler which fascinated me (much more so than it did you, I think). We’re introduced to naive yet unsavory Louis Bloom who wants to get into the video news business. We follow him as he becomes more and more corrupt, staging events so that they become newsworthy – even the death of his partner. It was a wicked anti-hero story that was crafted so well that I want to see it again to watch Louis’s descent into villainy and to see how it was accomplished.

Greg, I was just as fascinated as you were by Nightcrawler. The film was impeccably made but I could not bear to honor a movie that shows us two relentless hours of the devil in human form at work on the streets of Los Angeles. I was disturbed by the main character — notice that I cannot call him a hero — and his wanton disregard for human life. It was disheartening that no heroic character in the film could even come close to combating him. Our main character is pure evil running roughshod over everyone in his path. Like a cancer, he just grows and grows in his size and power, and he is shown flourishing in the end. The absence of any hero story here motivated me to omit this film from my top 10 list.


Our next movie is Selma, which I ranked as the #2 movie of the year while you gave it top billing. Never have I seen a better demonstration of the need, rationale, and effectiveness of nonviolent demonstration. It could be an ideal instruction manual for those wanting to emulate King’s (and Gandhi’s) model of bringing about peaceful sociocultural change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in fabulous detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move mountains.


Yes, Scott, all that is true. But the reason I gave Selma my #1 spot is because it echoes the problems we still see today. We still have voter obstruction through the imposition of unbalanced voter identification requirements. And we still see the brutal beating and killing of people of color by police – without due process of the perpetrators of that violence. Selma reminds us of the battles that have been won and the battles we have yet to fight.

And that brings us to your #1 pick for the year: Birdman. It didn’t make my list of the ten best because I really didn’t want to see it again. It was a skillfully made movie with a lot of subtext and art. But it was a very huge wink to itself and the Hollywood community. It was incredibly self-indulgent and I felt that it wasn’t made for me, the average movie viewer, but made for the Hollywood elite. It wasn’t even released to the general public until the new year so that “everyman” could see it. Despite its technical achievement, I felt alienated and I won’t be going back for seconds.

Greg, my number 1 choice, Birdman, reminded me so much of one of my favorite novels, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. This film is a complex and gripping piece of cinematic art. It is exhilarating, thoughtful, and complex. We are treated to intelligent character exchanges and nimble camera direction. Most notable about Birdman are the extraordinary performances from the cast. Keaton and Norton deserve Oscar nods for their portrayal of two men attempting to overcome powerfully neurotic, loveless lives. These are men who dive into the acting profession because it is a reprieve from the facade of reality. The themes of authenticity and flight to freedom sustain our attention and (for me) encourage a second visit to the theater.


So there you have it. Our top 10 lists overlap somewhat but there are some key differences, too. Overall, I would give the movies of 2014 a rating of 3 and a half Reels out of 5. The quality of films started out poorly but finished fairly strong. I believe 2013 was a slightly better year in the movies; I’d give 2013 a rating of 4 Reels out of 5. You can read our reviews of the films of 2013 in our first book: Reel Heroes: Volume 1.

Scott, I think your summation matches the industry assessment as well. The 2013 domestic box office receipts tipped the scales at $10.9 billion. Whereas the 2014 income figures are around $9.8 billion. While we had a crop of good films this year, many of them didn’t arrive until Oscar season. The 2014 crowd of summer popcorn films had less staying power than in 2013, as well.

We’ll be collecting our reviews of 2014 (plus our insights into what makes a great hero and villain) in our upcoming book Reel Heroes: Volume 2: The Villains (due out in March). Until then, follow us as we review the movies of 2015 which will focus not only on heroes and villains, but also on supporting characters. And look for our review of the Best Heroes of 2014 and Best Villains of 2014.

2013 In Review

We love to review movies and making up our top picks for 2013 was even more fun. We were given a moment of pause when a reader wrote the following note which points out that a lot of our favorite films came late in the season. He challenged us to look back at the films from earlier in the year and think about whether the recency of our viewing influenced our favorite movies. Here’s his note:

I’m struck by a couple of things. One is how you are both heavily tilted in favor of movies currently showing or produced for the current Oscar season. It’s a human trait to be influenced by what we have most recently been exposed to. A good exercise for you might be to go back to movies time January-August 2013 time frame and make new lists out of that limited pool, and then see which if any of them might make your final choices for the year a little different than it is. ...

So we did go back and look at our reviews over the last year and the numbers are telling. First, here’s a histogram of our rating of the movies from 2013. The height of the bar represents how many movies got the ranking along the bottom of the graph:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 8.03.37 PM


What this graph shows is that we have a nice bell-shaped curve indicating that our ratings are normally distributed. In other words, there were a lot of movies that were average (3 Reels) and relatively few that were terrible (0-1.5 Reels) and relatively few that were great (4-5 Reels).

Another graph shows how many Reels and Heroes we doled out in 2013:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 8.04.04 PM


This graphic shows that (roughly speaking) the quality of a movie is related to the quality of the hero.

Finally, this next graph shows a plot of the quality of movies (in Reels) from the beginning of 2013 through to the end: (click to enlarge)

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.57.21 PMThere is a blue line through the middle of the graph represents the median (3.0 Reels). The gray area represents the months of January through April as well as October. Most films in those months were rated as 3.0 reels or less. Then during the yellow months (May-August) the ratings hover arond 3.0 (with an occasional spike). Finally the blue months (September, November, and December) had great ratings in the high 4.0-5.0 Reels.

So there is a reason that our “Best Films of 2013” picks favored movies that we saw more recently – the movies at the end of the year are actually better than the ones at the beginning of the year.

Thanks to David Thomas for his posting from our “Best Films of 2013” analysis from last January.


Worst Films of 2013

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, in an earlier post, we identified the best movies of 2013. That was a lot of fun and left us with a good taste in our mouths.

And now it’s time to pick the worst movies of 2013 – while they left a bad taste in our mouths it can be just as much fun to review them, too.

Below is my list of the worst of the worst, the baddest of the bad, in 2013. I chose these stinkers based on how much I rolled my eyes and looked at my watch while viewing them in the theater. They all told dumb stories, or they took a good story and made it bad through poor execution.  Here’s my list:

Scott’s Worst 10
10 – The Hangover 3
9 – The Family
8 – Closed Circuit
7 – The Counselor
6 – RIPD
5 – Getaway
4 – Machete Kills
3 – Grown Ups 2
2 – Scary Movie 5
1 – The Big Wedding

I see some familiar titles there, Scott.  Here’s how I ranked the films I warned friends away from in 2013 based on a number of factors but mostly how ripped-off I felt by bad dialog, bad acting or just a lack of any direction. Let’s get started!

Greg’s Worst 10
10 – Getaway
9 – The Counselor
8 – The Hangover 3
7 – The Conjuring
6 – Grown Ups 2
5 – Machete Kills
4 – This Is The End
3 – Scary Movie 5
2 – Movie 43
1 – The Big Wedding


Getaway_PosterMy choice of the year’s 5th-worst movie is Getaway.  This movie definitely made me want to “get away” from the theater as fast as possible. The movie was just a 90-minute excuse to film cars going fast and crashing into things. I suppose a bored 8-year-old child might have found the endless series of car crashes to be entertaining. During those long car-wrecking scenes I found myself yearning for the characters to engage in dialogue, but I regretted that yearning as soon as I got a whiff of that atrocious dialogue. When the characters spoke, I began to yearn for the car crashes to return. Greg, there are some movies that just shouldn’t ever be made. Getaway is near the top of that list.

You’re right, Scott. Getaway was surprisingly bad. In my review from last summer I think I said “Getaway is … derivative of a genre of movie that should have no derivative.” The only thing that kept me from rating it lower (than the #10 spot) was a decent performance by Selena Gomez. At a time when Miley Cyrus is twerking all over the Internet it was good to see a Disney kid do well.

Machete_KillsI ranked Machete Kills as my #5 worst film of the year. I nearly gave it a pass simply because it was supposed to be bad. But it was the worst bad film I’ve seen in a long time. I much preferred 1997’s Austin Powers movie which was over the top with it’s nod towards 1960s Bond films. The action was just blood and gore for the sake of blood and gore. I don’t see any need to visit the theater for the sequel: Machete Kills: In Outer Space.


Greg, Machete Kills killed, all right. It killed my desire to ever see another movie made by Robert Rodriguez. I ranked Machete Kills as my 4th worst movie of the year. I do have to give Machete Kills some credit — it seemed to invent new ways for a movie to be bad. The pointlessness of the entire production was off the scale. Yes, I know the movie was trying to wink at itself and at its audience, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried to take the film seriously. But if I’m going to pay good money to see a movie, shouldn’t I expect the filmmakers to at least try to create something worth seeing?

MV5BMTQxODE3NjM1Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzkzNjc4OA@@._V1_SX214_If you thought Machete Kills was bad, I thought my #4 pick, This is the End, was even worse. It was the story of Hollywood’s young elite in the end-of-days. This pointless diversion had major young stars performing a variety of ridiculous stunts including a “cum-off” between James Franco and Danny McBride. It was crude for the purposes of being crude and it was successful at that. So much so that I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater. I hope to never see this film again.

Alas, This is the End was one of the movies we disagreed about this past year, Greg. I actually thought behind all the debauchery and lunacy, the movie showed some amusing creativity. Plus, the film was a decent buddy hero story in which the two heroes must change their ways in order to be saved from destruction. This is the End won’t win any awards for excellence but it had its good solid moments, in my opinion.


Grown_Ups_2_PosterMy 3rd worst movie of the year was Grown Ups 2. This movie re-defines what it is to be a terrible movie. If the screenplay writers had simply vomited on the pages, they would have produced a better movie than the one they wrote on those pages. You know how they say that given enough time, monkeys could produce Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Well, the makers of Grown Ups 2 must have recruited some of the dumbest, most tasteless monkeys they could find and then given those monkeys one nanosecond to produce something. Adam Sandler’s career definitely hit a new low with this film, and I’m still bitter and resentful about the IQ points that I lost by watching Grown Ups 2.

I didn’t hate this movie as much as you did (it was my #6) but I did hate it pretty well. The thing that really gets my goat is that this drek of a film is doing great in DVD sales. I guess we weren’t the target audience for Grown Ups 2.

MV5BMTc5OTIxMjQ4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTAyNDcyOQ@@._V1._SX95_SY140_My #3 pick for the worst film of 2013 was Scary Movie 5. This was the latest in the series and drew from the popularity of such films as Mama, Cabin in the Woods and Black Swan. I would have made this my #1 pick except that it gets a point or two for being written by one of the Zucker Brothers (of Airplane! fame) and was clearly designed to be so bad it was good. Well it was neither bad enough nor good enough to be watched even once. Even for Charlie Sheen, this was a low point.


Greg, I couldn’t have said it any better. I picked Scary Movie 5 as my 2nd worst movie of the year. Earlier you said that This is the End is a sorry excuse for Hollywood’s elite to engage in self-congratulatory drek. Well, this is an apt description of Scary Movie 5. What were these stars thinking when they agreed to work on a project that features tooth brushes being shoved in people’s butts and amniotic fluid splashing on people’s faces? Maybe some people find this funny but what I see is a desperate attempt to produce shock value, which by itself is never, ever funny.

MV5BMTg4NzQ3NDM1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjEzMjM3OA@@._V1_SX214_Which reminds me of my #2 pick – Movie 43 which was about as low as any movie has ever been. It featured big stars doing grotesque jokes. Witness Hugh Jackman as a dashing young man with testicles on his chin. And Halle Berry wearing a ridiculously large prosthetic pair of breasts. And a man defecating all over his girlfriend in an act of lovemaking. And these are just the images I can share in print. It has been said the the Farrelly Brothers took years to get all these stars together in one film. The fact is that they coerced their stars into the roles using tricks of the trade. I’m surprised Movie 43 didn’t make your “bottom 10” list.

Well, if it’s any consolation, Movie 43 did make my bottom 43, Greg. But you’re right, it easily could have made my list of the 10 worst film failures this year. I’m not sure what the filmmakers were thinking when they produced Movie 43 — in fact, that’s the problem: They weren’t thinking at all. All those absurd little skits couldn’t possibly add up to a good overall movie. In this case, the whole was far, far less than the sum of the parts.


MV5BMTcwODUwMjg2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTc2NzkxOA@@._V1_SX214_My Worst Movie of the year, Greg, is the same as yours — The Big Wedding. What a celluloid catastrophe this film turned out to be. Somehow, writer and director Justin Zackham thought that it would be funny to totally embarrass some of Hollywood’s best veteran actors by making them speak and act like immature, sex-crazed teenagers. I was cringing and wincing at every scene. For me, The Big Wedding was the Titanic of movies this year — it was Big all right. A Big Mess, A Big Flop, and A Big Embarrassment. The less said about this film, the better.

We agree on one thing, after all, Scott. The Big Wedding was about as bad as a movie can get without trying. It had everything going for it: a big cast (Robert De Niro,  Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Katherine Heigl, and Topher Grace), it had a previous success (based on the foreign film Mon frère se marie) and Writer/Director Justin Zackham (The Bucket List). But when that mix of talent was blended together we got the most shockingly bad xenophobic movie I’ve ever seen. The Colombian mother-in-law was treated as an idiot, her naive daughter was treated as a sex kitten, and the audience was treated as unwelcome guests as the actors tried their least and phoned in this incredible clunker. The reason this is my worst film of the year is because of the huge chasm between the high-quality of its stars and the low-quality of its story. What a disgrace.

Well, those were the worst movies of the year, Greg. It’s interesting how 2013 could produce so many excellent movies, yet so many bad ones, too.

You’re right, Scott. I’m just glad I didn’t have to suffer through them alone. Thanks for a great year of films and Reel Heroes!

Best Heroes of 2013

Well Scott, we’ve reviewed the best movies and worst movies of the year 2013. Let’s look at our favorite heroes from 2013.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Yes, this will be fun. Examining the hero story within the movie is one of our primary goals here at Reel Heroes.

I picked my heroes based on how transformed they were or by how much they transformed those around them. Here are my top ten heroes for 2013:


Greg’s Top Heroes

10 – Tim (About Time)
9 – Ellis (Mud)
8 – Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
7 – Dr. Ryan Stone (Gravity)
6 – Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)
5 – Walter Mitty (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
4 – Cecil Gaines (The Butler)
3 – James Hunt & Nikki Lauda (Rush)
2 – Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club)
1 – Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey (42)

I used the same criteria in evaluating the heroes, too, Greg. In addition, I looked at the presence or absence of other features of the classic hero journey, such as whether the hero acquires allies, mentors, father figures, villains, and love interests.  Here’s my top ten heroes list:

Scott’s Top Heroes

10 – Liesel (The Book Thief)
9 – Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club)
8 – Philomena (Philomena)
7 – James Hunt & Nikki Lauda (Rush)
6 – Tim (About Time)
5 – Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey (42)
4 – Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave)
3 – Ellis (Mud)
2 – Cecil Gaines (The Butler)
1 – Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)


Ben-Stiller-in-a-still-fr-014Well it looks like we have some common views here and there. Let’s start off looking at my #5 pick. I loved Walter Mitty in Ben Stein’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He starts out very timid and introverted. He’s too shy to ask a girl out. And rather than voyaging out and doing something with his life he spends all his time day dreaming about what he could do. But after his hero’s quest in search of the missing negative, he is transformed. He’s confident, outgoing, and he’s done more in a few days than most people have done in a lifetime. It’s a great hero’s journey, one that I’m going to watch again.

Walter Mitty didn’t make my top-ten list, but he is a worthy inclusion. I enjoyed watching his transformation from meek dullard to bold adventurer. The story is a simple yet powerful tale of self-discovery and self-realization, which is essential in any good hero story.

42My #5 pick was Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey in the movie 42. These two heroes don’t quite fit the buddy-hero mold; perhaps 42 is best described as a mentor-mentee hero story. Rickey sets in motion a plan to revolutionize major league baseball by introducing Robinson as the first African-American player in 1947. This past year Harrison Ford has established his versatility as an actor who can play an outstanding mentor to the main hero, who in this case is Robinson himself. In 42 we see Robinson endure great suffering and humiliation, and he must also show tremendous restraint if he is to break the racial barrier. Rickey and Robinson work together to overcome this barrier and in doing so they make a fabulous hero duo.

Scott, this was a flawed film, but a great story of transformation. And that is why Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were my #1 pick for greatest heroes of 2013. For the reasons you mentioned, Robinson is a great heroic figure. He had to take the humiliation of the racist crowds and his racist teammates. But he could never show his anger. Rickey risked his entire franchise to break the color barrier. Between them, Robinson and Rickey transformed all of baseball forever. That is a huge accomplishment. American sports would never be the same. Baseball documentarian Ken Burns addressed it this way: “If you are a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and you’re a racist, what do you do? … You can quit baseball altogether, you can change teams, or you can change.” And in the end the fans chose to change. I don’t think any of the heroes on either of our lists had the sweeping impact that Robinson and Rickey had on American culture. And that’s why they gained my #1 spot.


whitaker_the_butlerMy #4 pick was Cecil Gaines from Lee Daniel’s The Butler. This is another true-life hero brought to the silver screen. Cecil was brought up from nothing, a sharecropper’s son who worked hard and grew to be the head butler in the White House. He attended to the most important people in the nation and the world during his tenure. And he had a lasting impact on the White House staff as he single-handedly changed the pay structure there. I also enjoyed the dual-buddy role played by his son who grew up to be a civil rights leader. Ultimately Cecil was transformed from a  quiet servant to an activist himself. It was a great story of transformation.

Cecil Gaines as The Butler is my #2 pick, Greg, and for all the reasons you mention. He not only evolved nicely as a hero in this story, he also witnessed — and played a small part in — the enormous transformation of the American culture. This vast societal transformation is also seen in the type of U.S. President he served under, from conservatives such as Eisenhower and Nixon to our current African-American President Barack Obama. There is also a nice atonement with the son, a clever spin on the usual father atonement seen in the classic hero journey.

chiwetel-ejiofor-as-solomon-northup-in-12-YEARS-A-SLAVEMy #4 choice is Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. As I’ve noted elsewhere, 2013 is the Year of the African-American male hero, and Northup joins Jackie Robinson and Cecil Gaines as a powerful hero who must summon all his personal resources to triumph over horrific adversity. Northup’s ordeal as a slave is emotionally wrenching to watch in 12 Years a Slave. The brutality he endured and the resilience he needed are portrayed both painfully and magnificently in this film. In the end, as with any great hero, Northup drew from his agonizing experiences to better society. This hero story is gripping, compelling, and unforgettable, Greg.

Scott, I can see why you picked Solomon Northrup. He was a model of courage and tenacity. But when I scored him on either being transformed or transforming others, he just didn’t measure up to some of the other heroes of 2013. 12 Years a Slave is a must-see movie. But Northrup was very much the same man at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, albeit robbed of more than just the 12 years he suffered.


exclusive-poster-for-rush-featuring-chris-hemsworth-and-daniel-br-hl-142242-a-1375865830-470-75My #3 pick was James Hunt & Nikki Lauda from Ron Howard’s Rush. At the beginning of this film Hunt and Lauda are vicious rivals in formula one racing. In part due to Hunt’s brashness, Lauda is maimed in a racing accident. Strangely, it was this near-death experience that brings the two men together. Hunt comes to respect Lauda’s meticulous nature and Lauda comes to envy Hunt’s devil-may-care attitude toward life. I thoroughly enjoyed this buddy story.

Hunt and Lauda were my #7 pick, and I agree that their evolving relationship was fascinating to witness. What impressed me was how their friendship and mutual respect grew out of an initially strong disliking for each other. I would have assigned a higher rank to these two heroes if they had transformed society in a meaningful way, but as auto racers they were hardly in any position to accomplish that feat.

mud-still04My #3 choice of a young boy named Ellis in the highly underrated film Mud. This is a movie that shows us the pain of adolescence, a topic to which most of us can relate. Like any young kid, Ellis is initially naive and trusting. He sees the world in black and white terms, and he seems hardly prepared for the volatile world around him. The movie depicts the manner in which Ellis copes with his parents’ break-up, his girlfriend’s betrayal, and Mud’s complex and contradictory behavior. Ellis undergoes vast emotional growth and becomes a man right before our eyes.

Ellis was my #9 pick and also one of my favorite characters from 2013. Mud was a great story of young love and a boy transforming into a man. In Mud Ellis finds a possible future and learns that unquestioning love can be taken too far. It’s a hard lesson but in the end we see Ellis attains a maturity that eludes his older counterpart. It’s a great story and Ellis is a great hero.


Golden_Globes_Nominations.JPEG-0a7b9_t607My #2 pick was Ron Woodroof from Dallas Buyer’s Club. Ron starts out as a redneck rodeo cowboy who was as tough as nails. He was also as homophobic as they come. When he is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS he is cast into a world of people who are shunned by society not only for their disease but for who they love. Woodroof’s transformation from an insensitive and ignorant man to a man who openly weeps when his homosexual business partner dies is touching and memorable.

Totally agree, Greg. Woodroof is my #9 pick. His transformation is as dramatic as they come. I enjoyed watching his motives shift in this movie. Woodroof started out completely self-absorbed and self-serving, and he’s also as greedy as they come. But over time, we see subtle shifts toward compassion that add up to a gigantic shift at the end. It’s a great hero story for sure.


Ender_WigginThis leaves us with my Number 1 hero of the year — Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game.  I guess you could say that I’m a sucker for coming of age stories. For all the reasons I loved the story of Ellis in Mud, I also love the terrific personal growth story of Ender Wiggin. What sets Ender apart from other heroes we’ve seen this year is his exponential growth in so many different facets of his young life. Ender grows intellectually, physically, socially, militarily, and emotionally. Once again, Harrison Ford plays a mentor, but here he’s a misguided mentor who molds and shapes Ender in ways that are both admirable and catastrophic. In the end, we see Ender surpass his mentor in wisdom — isn’t this the ultimate transformation in any hero?

You make a compelling case, Scott. I scored Ender only #6 on my list – but mainly because I thought other heroes had greater transformation. We both really liked Ender’s Game in our “Best Of” list (I scored it #1 and you #2). I also overlooked how he impacted both the society of his homeworld and that of the aliens. He truly transformed both worlds. Ender is one of cinema’s great heroes of 2013.

Well, Scott, 2013 is now a distant memory. I’ve enjoyed sitting in the theater with you and across from you at Sedona Taphouse afterwards. It was a good year for movies – especially the last two months. I’m looking forward to another year of analyzing Reel Heroes.

Me, too, Greg. It’s been a fun ride working with you to study the hero journeys in the movies in 2013. We’ve been privileged to encounter some truly unforgettable heroes as well as some truly forgettable ones. We hope that we’ve shed some light on the difference.

It’s been a pleasure sparring with you about the movies and the heroes in them. We often agree but it’s been fun to disagree, too. Now it’s onward and upward to Reel Heroes in 2014.


Best Films of 2013

Scott, it’s 2014 and time to reflect on the best movies we saw in 2013.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Indeed, Greg. Although there were a lot of stinkers in 2013, there were also many quality movies deserving of recognition.

For me, I listed my favorite films by how badly I wanted to see them again. There were a lot of great films this year. Picking just 10 that I wanted to see again was a tough call.  Here’s my list:

Greg’s Top 10
10 – Mud
9 – Hunger Games: Catching Fire
8 – Star Trek Into Darkness
7 – About Time
6 – Saving Mr. Banks
5 – Rush
4 – Gravity
3 – Walter Mitty
2 – 12 Years A Slave
1 – Ender’s Game

I generated my list based on the quality of the story and how memorable the characters were.  Another big factor, of course, was the worthiness of the hero. Here is my top ten list:

Scott’s Top 10
10 – Gravity
9 – Nebraska
8 – Philomena
7 – Rush
6 – The Book Thief
5 – Mud
4 – The Butler
3 – 42
2 – Ender’s Game
1 – 12 Years a Slave


Rush_movie_posterIt looks like we have some movies in common. Let’s do a deeper dive into each of our top five lists. My #5 pick was Rush which you listed as your #7.

I loved Rush. It was what makes a great movie. It’s a the buddy story of two men in competition to be the best Formula One racers in the world. Nikki Lauda is the straight-laced, methodical racer. James Hunt is the party animal and sex-crazed undisciplined seat-of-the-pants driver. They start out as bitter rivals and in the end have an enduring friendship. It’s the stuff mythic heroes are made of and that story makes me want to go back for a second helping.

I enjoyed Rush, too, Greg. I’d like to see director Ron Howard get some recognition for his meticulously accurate portrayal of this great racing rivalry.

Mud_posterMy #5 pick was Mud, which was a poignant story of a young boy wrestles with the trials of growing up in the modern world. I’m glad you included Mud in your top 10 list, too, Greg. I was impressed by how Mud shows us that a kid can have the best of intentions and yet still get hurt by adult strangers, by parents, and by fickle romantic interests. Emerging from the pain is real and meaningful personal growth in our hero, Ellis. The movie does an outstanding job chronicling the hurts, the setbacks, and yes, the triumphs of this young man.

Mud was a great story and was one of the few we admitted to the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. I was particularly taken with Ellis’s idolizing of Mud. Ellis was in search of a hero and Mud came along at a time when Ellis was in search of someone to look up to. Ultimately such heroes must take a fall and that leaves the young man to go on alone. It was a bittersweet story and one worthy of a second look.


MV5BNjE5MzYwMzYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk4MTk0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_My #4 pick was Gravity. This is the story of Dr. Ryan Stone, a female astronaut portrayed by Sandra Bullock in a nearly stand-alone appearance. Stone goes from a space novice to space veteran in one sitting. This is a strong story of growth and overcoming impossible odds. Aside from the hero’s journey was the technical accuracy and stunning graphics of the film. I don’t think I’ve seen such meticulous film-making since 2001: A Space Odyssey. I definitely want to enjoy this film again.

Gravity didn’t make my top 5 but was in my top 10, Greg. This may be Bullock’s best work to date, and you’re right, she really had to carry the movie single-handedly. The CGI effects were astounding and helped make a strong storyline truly come to life.

The_Butler_posterMy #4 movie of the year was The Butler. This movie details the heroic life Cecil Gaines, who is both witness to, and a participant in, the Civil Rights movement in America.  We see the life of a man who not only lived through radical changes in American society, but also witnessed the U.S. government machinery that either helped or hindered the transformation.  You can see both pain and dignity in Cecil’s every word and facial expression. I believe that 2013 was the year of the African-American heroic journey, with films like The Butler, 42, and 12 Years a Slave all documenting remarkable stories of courage and resilience in African-American men.

The Butler was a great film but didn’t make my top 10 because of some of the casting. It seemed like a who’s who of liberal Hollywood with Robin Williams and Jane Fonda playing characters they had no business playing. Plus there was a lack of historical elaboration that made it hard to follow without some research. It is one of many great stories depicting Black American struggle this year, but not one of my favorites.


The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterMy #3 pick for 2013 is a complete diversion from the historical films we’ve been discussing. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller’s Christmas offering with the story of a timid man (Mitty) who spends more time day dreaming than actually doing anything. He wants to gain the affections of a pretty woman. But he has lost an important image for Life magazine and so he embarks on a worldwide trek in search of the missing negative. I loved this film’s imagery and cleverness. It was colorful and epic in it’s scope. I definitely need to see it again.

I also enjoyed Walter Mitty, although the movie didn’t make my top 10 list.  It’s omission on my list is due more to the abundance of quality movies in 2013 than it is a reflection of any major problems I had with the film. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a sweet, simple story that may be the feel-good movie of the year.

42_film_posterMy #3 pick is the movie 42, which captures on film one of the greatest defining moments in American racial desegregation – the introduction of an African-American man in major league baseball. The film’s two parallel heroes — Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson — were stirring and inspirational. Rickey serves as the catalyst for Robinson’s journey while also playing the role of mentor to Robinson. If this film accomplishes anything, it shows us a greater social context to Robinson’s remarkable accomplishments. For me, 42 packed deep emotional punch. I had to reach for the Kleenex when I saw two of Robinson’s teammates, Pee Wee Reese and Dixie Walker, put their own well-being on the line to support Robinson during the worst of the abuse that Robinson endured. 42 is a true triumph of filmmaking.


Scott, 42 is a great story and didn’t make my top 10 list. While I enjoyed the story I didn’t feel there was anything that beckoned me back to the theater to see more. It’s a great hero’s journey but once was enough.


My #2 pick was 12 Years a Slave. This is the story of Solomon Northrup who was a free Negro living in the North in 1841. He was abducted and sold as a slave in the South. It’s a terrifying story of a man who lost everything and worked to acclimate himself to his new situation but never gave up hope of making his way back home. The story and the filmmaking were so well-constructed and so full of events that I want a second chance to take it all in.

MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_Greg, you have good taste — I chose 12 Years a Slave as my Number 1 Movie of the Year. This film is a searing look at the worst form of human abomination, namely, the disgrace of slavery. If you’re not in tears when you watch the relentless suffering, if your heart isn’t bursting when you witness the powerful final scene of the movie, then you have no human heart. The scenes of brutality are too terrible to bear, but bear them we must. Our hero Solomon must summon every resource to survive — his brains, his brawn, his spirit, his resilience, and his heart. 12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart but it is a story that must be told, and in this case it is told extraordinarily well. In my opinion, the movie deserves to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.


Ender's_Game_posterThat brings us to my #1 pick of 2013 – Ender’s Game. This is the motion picture recreation of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel from 1985. The outer-space acrobatics in this book were not reproducible on-screen before now. The imagery and special effects were outstanding. But most of all, it was a faithful reimagining of the source material. Ender Wiggin is a gifted youngster and his talents are exploited by his mentors to political ends that he ultimately comes to question. It’s a story that is both timeless and timely and one that I could watch again and again.

Greg, I loved Ender’s Game. It is my #2 pick this year.  Ender’s Game is the gripping story of a gifted young boy who is shaped and mentored into battle-readiness by elders we both admire and revile. This movie’s coming-of-age story is superior to any other I’ve seen. Everyone involved in the making of this film deserves great props, from screenplay writers to production designers to cinematographers. It’s fascinating to watch Ender overcome obstacles to become transformed as a character. Ender’s Game is a film for people who like to leave the theater pondering intellectual and ethical issues. How should we treat our enemies? What exactly is good leadership? Should any society use children to fight wars? Ender’s Game reminded me why I love going to the movies.

Scott, it’s been a great year for great storytelling. Thanks for joining me in reviewing these wonderful works. I’m looking forward to another year of reviewing the best and worst of 2014 with you.

I agree, Gregger. I believe 2013 was a banner year for the movie industry. Let’s hope it continues into 2014.


A Tribute to Roger Ebert


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, as everyone knows, last week we lost a legendary movie critic. Roger Ebert passed away at age 70.

Yes. I was really surprised to hear it. I knew that he had been battling cancer for years, but I didn’t know it had returned. I remember watching Siskel & Ebert when I was a teen.

I watched Siskel & Ebert, too, back in the 1980s. They made a big impression on me. They forever changed the way I look at movies. Before, I viewed movies as merely a fun diversion, hardly worth any detailed scrutiny. But Siskel & Ebert treated the movie experience very seriously, as an art form to be examined and carefully critiqued.

Last year I reviewed 50 first run movies. I never read any reviews before writing my own. But I always read Roger Ebert’s review after I published mine. He was the gold standard for movie reviews. While I developed my own style, I learned a lot by reading Ebert.

Ebert clearly had two shining gifts. One gift was a razor sharp critical eye regarding what made a quality movie. He knew good acting, directing, and storytelling when he saw it. The second gift was his ability to articulate his insights with an exemplary command of the English language. I remember being mesmerized by his eloquence and intelligence.

It’s true, he was the first movie critic to be awarded the Pulitzer prize. One of my favorite Ebert moments was when he wrote a response to Rob Schneider. Schneider had taken umbrage at a negative review of one of his “Gigolo” movies written by a critic and took out a full-page ad blasting the review. Ebert devoted a whole column in response with the conclusion that “Your Movie Sucks” – which became the title of his book of bad movie reviews.

He certainly was fearless about communicating his feelings about a movie being disastrously bad. With each new movie release, the movie industry nervously awaited his thumbs up-or-down verdict. Careers were made or broken by Ebert’s edicts. He was far from good-looking yet had a curious charisma that attracted people and won him many admirers.

And his “At The Movies” format has influenced us as well. Our dialogue-style critique was inspired by the original Siskel & Ebert show. I’m going to miss Roger Ebert. I give him an honorary 5 Heroes.superman-5

I’ll miss him, too. He was like a friend you could turn to for terrific insights about your favorite movies. As smart as he was, he trusted his heart over his mind when evaluating movies, saying “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.” That tells me that as a movie critic, he certainly knew how heroes resonate with us all at a deep level. I also give him 5 honorary Heroes. superman-5