The best storms in cinematic history

From the apocalyptic to the ridiculous, here are the movies to settle in with this evening -- if you have power SLIDE SHOW

Topics: Movies, Hurricane Sandy,

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    The best storms in cinematic history

    "Moonrise Kingdom" -- As we learn at the very beginning of Wes Anderson’s mid-1960s summer romance (through the agency of an on-screen narrator), the preteen lovers at the heart of the tale are resolving to run away together just three days before a major hurricane hits the New England coastal island of New Penzance. While the storm in “Moonrise Kingdom” is transparently both a plot device and an illustration of the pathetic fallacy – it’s conjured up, so to speak, by the characters’ stormy emotional lives -- it’s nonetheless a biggie, thrusting everyone in the movie together for a melodramatic climax and the requisite bittersweet denouement.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "Take Shelter" -- Released right in the middle of 2011’s destructive hurricane season, Jeff Nichols’ powerful and mysterious “Take Shelter,” built around a career-defining performance by Michael Shannon, still looks to me like one of this decade’s landmark American films. If you watch it this week, you might also think of it as a portrait of a tormented swing voter in a divided state: Shannon plays an Ohio construction worker haunted by dreams and waking visions of extreme-weather apocalypse. Is he a prophet of genuine doom or an ordinary American sinking into paranoid schizophrenia? Not even his wife (an understated performance by Jessica Chastain) can be sure – and neither can we, even when the last haunting image has faded from the screen.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "Trouble the Water" -- As the painful and embarrassing memory of Hurricane Katrina has slid down the memory hole, so did this ambiguous but memorable documentary by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, which came out in 2008, just as Barack Obama was emerging as a presidential front-runner. Much of the footage in “Trouble the Water” was shot by New Orleans resident and self-described “street hustler” Kim Rivers Roberts, who turned on her newly acquired video camera on Aug. 29, 2005, and began to record what was happening on her block in the Lower Ninth Ward. She was in the right place at exactly the wrong time, because shortly after Katrina passed over the city the levees gave way, and before long the water level was above the stop signs and nearing the housetops. Deal and Lessin employ Roberts’ video as one element in a gripping tale of one family’s resilience and survival, in one of the poorest and most forgotten corners of America.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "The Hurricane" -- While it completely flunks all modern-day tests of racial representation, the early John Ford special-effects drama “The Hurricane” actually means to be an anti-racist parable. Unfortunately, it features Hollywood stars Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour, who are both pretty much as white as human beings can get, playing South Pacific islanders caught in a deranged melodramatic plot that involves the bigoted European rules of Tahiti, John Carradine as an evil prison warden and a thrilling hurricane sequence that channels elements of “The Odyssey” and Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus.” Lamour came back three years later for director Louis King’s “Typhoon,” which has absolutely no progressive intentions and is an offensive botch job from start to finish (except for the eponymous typhoon itself).

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "The Rains of Ranchipur" -- Delirious, Oscar-nominated pulp in widescreen mid-‘50s Technicolor, featuring Lana Turner as a spoiled Englishwoman with the wonderful name of Edwina Esketh, who comes to India with her titled husband and falls in love with a local Hindu doctor, played by – and, no, I’m not kidding -- Richard Burton. Although this is arguably not quite as offensive as the “yellowface” Charlie Chan movies, “The Rains of Ranchipur” is up there, and the fact that director Jean Negulesco believes he’s making a high-class epic doesn’t help. But despite the alternately boring, racist and moralistic character drama, Negulesco gets some glorious location footage of India in the ‘50s – and once the outstanding (by the period’s standards) earthquake-monsoon-flood sequences kick in, you can simply root for everyone to drown.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "Noah's Ark" and "Noah" -- I’ll be honest – I’ve only seen clips from Warner Bros.’ legendary “part-talkie” production of “Noah’s Ark,” which marked the filmmaking debut of future “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz. But it was clearly ahead of its time in many ways, with a story-within-story nested narrative that goes from the trenches of World War I back to the biblical tale of Noah’s ark, and numerous actors playing roles in both stories. It was also one of the first big special effects movies, with a flood sequence that was rather too ambitious for the era: Three extras actually drowned, another lost a leg and costar Dolores Costello (who plays a German actress and spy in one story and Noah’s doomed handmaiden in the other) caught pneumonia and nearly died. As for Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming “Noah,” with Russell Crowe playing the patriarch loyal to Jehovah God the Almighty – no, haven’t seen that either! (Because it will not exist in final form for nearly two years.) But I think a memorable storm sequence is pretty much guaranteed.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "Twister" -- An ill-fitting combo of romantic comedy and disaster movie, this 1996 hit from cinematographer-turned-director Jan de Bont (who’d had an even bigger hit with “Speed” two years earlier) remains entertaining video wallpaper, with digital storm effects that look nearly state-of-the-art 16 years later. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton make a likable, squabbling, all-American duo as they chase killer storms and do battle against the dastardly Cary Elwes (exactly how and why dastardly I can’t remember), but the story takes a distant third place behind the awesome tornado sequences and de Bont’s almost painterly widescreen Oklahoma landscapes.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "The White Squall" -- Not so much a weather movie as a manly seafaring adventure of the old school that climaxes in a sudden and disastrous storm, Ridley Scott’s 1996 “White Squall” involves few if any digital effects, with the key sequences shot using a full-size vessel in a “horizon tank” on the island of Malta. (One of three such facilities in the world.) A work of utter and complete cornpone that has been aptly described as “Dead Poets Society Goes to Sea,” with Jeff Bridges as the tough-minded skipper who leads a cast of private-school boys (including Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Sisto, Balthazar Getty and Jason Marsden) on a sea voyage aimed at shaping them into men or killing them in the process. Still, if this is one of Scott’s lesser films he knows how to put on a show, and the titular storm at the climax is tremendous.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "The Perfect Storm" -- Too easy, right? Nah, it still belongs here. Would a Hollywood movie actually dare to send roguish old salt George Clooney and best pal Mark Wahlberg down with the ship? It would when under the command of German-born director Wolfgang Petersen, who had the all-time classic submarine movie “Das Boot” behind him and resisted all efforts to tack a dramatic rescue onto the end of this adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s nonfiction bestseller. (In fairness, it’s true that Junger’s already speculative account of what befell the doomed Andrea Gail has been further distorted.) Bits of hackneyed home-port melodrama involving Diane Lane and her patented Massachusetts working-class accent threaten to sink the whole enterprise, but Clooney, Wahlberg and their fishing-boat mates John C. Reilly, William Fichtner and John Hawkes are all terrific, and the special effects set a standard that wouldn’t be matched for several more years.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "The Day After Tomorrow" -- Complete nonsense in the inimitable Roland Emmerich style, but pretty fun to watch – and, arguably, a movie that put global climate change on the national agenda several years ahead of “An Inconvenient Truth.” An Antarctic ice shelf shears off, launching three weeks of rain and a sudden plunge into a new Ice Age, roughly 1,000 times faster than is possible. Tidal waves, creeping ice shelves, blood-borne infections and packs of wolves all seem to collide in New York – but even less convincing than that is the casting, which offers Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal as father and son in search of a reunion. Ultimately, Emmerich’s heavy-handed anti-Republican satire may have done more harm than good; I’m guessing Sean Hannity would tell you: A) That movie where the Statue of Liberty got encased in ice was not realistic; B) Therefore climate change is a Hollywood hoax!

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "The Ice Storm" -- Stretching a point here, way more than with “Moonrise Kingdom,” in that the eponymous ice storm in Ang Lee’s art-house adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel doesn’t happen until the movie’s almost over and involves little or nothing in the way of special effects. Not to blow your mind or anything, but the real chill in this tale of boozy, cheating Connecticut suburbanites circa 1973 is internal, dude. Storm-relevance or not, “The Ice Storm” is well worth catching, for its satirical portrayal of a non-celebrated period of American social history, and for terrific performances by two generations of actors: Susan Sarandon, Kevin Kline and Joan Allen among the adults and Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci and the pre-Frodo Elijah Wood among the teens. Anyway, when the streets of New Canaan finally do freeze solid, they provide an unexpected and upsetting plot twist.

    The best storms in cinematic history

    "The Wizard of Oz" -- Maybe you dimly remember this one – I’m confident someone out there has seen it! A little girl, her dog and their entire house get airlifted from the Kansas prairie to some bizarre neverland in an exciting tornado sequence (incorrectly referred to as a cyclone). Once there, she meets some whiny animatronic characters who sing and dance. No, but seriously, the storm sequence in “Wizard of Oz” is positively amateurish by contemporary standards, and like the rest of this still-strange, still-thrilling movie, that illustrates an important point: Effects don’t have to be fully convincing to be effective. In fact, if we’ve signed on for the ride and care about what happens next, that almost doesn’t matter.

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Big storms have a unique ability to make human beings feel powerless despite all our technological might – and if you’re somewhere in the northeastern quadrant of the country and have lost power to your electronic gizmos, this list probably won’t be much use to you. (Then again, you aren’t reading it in the first place.)

But whether you’re locked indoors until Sandy passes over and are eager for an alternative to Weather Channel disaster porn — precisely my situation right now — or you just want to enjoy the hurricane experience by proxy, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore some of the most memorable storms in cinematic history. Sometimes bad weather on film is an excuse to show off the best available special effects (that was as true of “The Hurricane” in 1937 as it was of “Twister” in 1996), and sometimes it’s an overly literal metaphor meant to reflect the interior lives of the characters or some larger social drama. Sometimes, as in “Take Shelter,” one of my favorite American films of this decade, that question remains unanswered.

I’ve ranked these movies in an inherently subjective manner, but it absolutely isn’t from best to worst. Let’s say I started out with films that seem most clearly relevant to the big storm of 2012, and slid down the slope of significance from there.

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