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Exploration Movies for Columbus Day

Each film shows a different side of discovery.

Ok, so you had to work while Federal workers had the day off. But now you're off the clock and there's still time to observe Columbus Day; time to celebrate the man who discovered a land which already had 10 million inhabitants.

So, here's a Columbus Day countdown of seven top movies about exploration and discovery of new worlds that you can rent and enjoy. Not all of the films are about the founding of our nation, but each shows a different side of discovery.

7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZOcoxjeUYo)

Not a film about the colonization of America at all, Raiders of the Lost Ark instead focuses on a mission to rediscover Judeo-Christian heritage and learn the truth about our culture’s most enduring myths. It may not be deep, and it may not really have a moral, but this first adventure of Indiana Jones does have perfect pacing, editing and some of the most memorable action sequences of all time. One of, if not the single best, adventure films ever produced. If you haven’t seen it since you were a kid, it’s really worth revisiting. The film has lost none of its impact in the 30 years since its release.

6. The Abyss (1989, James Cameron) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJyRF0Fzl9Y

Another spectacular piece of Hollywood spectacle, James Cameron’s The Abyss tells the story of a group of deep-sea explorers who fight cabin fever, dwindling oxygen and space aliens as they traverse the deepest trenches of the ocean. It’s long, it’s weird and it’s occasionally overwrought, but this is Cameron in top form. While it underperformed upon its’ initial release, some consider the 170-minute director’s cut to be Cameron’s finest hour. The longer version amplifies many of the film’s problems, but it is also far more ambitious and original. Also, it has more footage of those totally unique aliens. 

5. The Land Before Time (1988, Don Bluth) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1guJDs6uKA)

This Bambi-esque tale of youthful dinosaurs trying to find a new home after a cataclysm separates them from their parents plays like a musical version of the Exodus story. Forget that it inspired literally a dozen direct-to-video sequels and pay attention to the beautiful animation, courtesy of Don Bluth during his creative peak. As with Bluth’s An American Tale and The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time is fun, original and surprisingly emotionally challenging. The story of searching for a new home after all you’ve known has been destroyed echoes the experience of many American immigrants throughout the history of our nation. It was one of my favorite films growing up, but the “Sharptooth” might scare some of the more sensitive youths. 

4. The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wygRQqjJE0g&feature=fvst)

This underrated surrealist melodrama from celebrated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky displays three different frontiers in service of an extended metaphor about love, loss and what it means to face that final frontier – death. In one story, Hugh Jackman plays a conquistador searching for the fountain of youth. In the second story, Jackman plays a scientist, desperately searching for a cure for cancer in order to save the love of his live, Rachel Weisz. In the third story, Jackman floats alone in space, haunted by the ghosts of his past as he hurtles toward a dying nebula in a psychic ball. It is every bit as confusing as it seems, but with some of the most singular imagery ever committed to film and boasting one of my all time favorite scores, courtesy of Clint Mansell and rock band Mogwai, The Fountain is never boring. It’s a journey of self-discovery and several brave new worlds.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uU4TQ1NTo50)

Another psychedelic tale of self-discovery and exploration of worlds that are literally new is Stanley Kubrick’s immortal 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a story about what it is to be human, what it is to be an individual and where we may be going as a species. It’s not always logical, but it hits you in the gut, and even 40 years of people ripping it off cannot remove the feeling of newness from the visuals. It is the rare film that shows you something entirely new. Once you see it, you will never be the same.

2. Pocahontas (1995, Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9q1QF8G47oU)

Pocahontas is a fairly controversial film in some circles. While it was a well intentioned piece that aimed to diversify Disney’s previously all-white "Princess" line of films, it is also grossly historically inaccurate, turns villains into heroes and pretty much completely ignores any issues related to the brutal and violent conquest of Native American lands, all while fetishizing the religious beliefs of indigenous tribes and reinforcing the myth of “The White Man’s Burden." That said, if you look at it without any politics in mind, it’s a great piece of filmmaking. The colors are bright, the songs are catchy and it’s a good place to begin a discussion. Which leads us to… 

1. The New World (2005, Terrence Malick) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-zMIgxbmnA

The New World is pretty much as far away from Disney’s Pocahontas as you can get. This is a far more naturalistic version of the John Smith and Pocahontas tale. It’s very long, very contemplative and features many extended stretches without a single word of dialogue. It is a tonal poem that creeps under your skin and swallows you whole. It works best if you’re already familiar with the story, so I would suggest reading up on the history first, and then perhaps watching it as a double feature with the animated version. There is little romanticizing in this tale, but it still manages to make the love affair between the middle-aged Smith and the barely pubescent Pocahontas seem real and palpable. The film neither damns the settlers, nor deifies the natives. Instead, it just watches quietly and allows one to draw his or her own conclusions.

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