“Once upon a time” is a staple of story beginnings. This is a list of the best films with “Once upon a time” in the title. Now, there aren’t that many films that fall into that category, but the movies that do share a two common traits: quality and length. Out of all the films I watched while making this list I didn’t see a single bad one and some of the movies that I was seeing for the first time completely blew me away. The length of the films is another thing that sets them apart from you average movie. The average runtime of the films on the list is an epic three hours and six minutes long. So here’s my advice for you, if you have three hours to kill and you want to see a masterpiece, pick a film off this list and watch it.
Once Upon A Time In China is the only movie on the list that isn’t a truly great film, it is however entirely worth watching. It contains some great set piece martial arts scenes that Jet Li absolutely tears apart. Although the plot is epic, a martial arts teacher takes on the US and UK and local militia, it’s simply not well told. There is never a clear goal established for our hero and when the movie comes to an end I felt like it was missing something. The heart of this movie is in the brilliantly choreographed fight scenes and if that’s what you’re watching it for you will not be disappointed.
Lagaan is the story of a poor group of Indian villagers who are forced to fight back against their British oppressors after an unjust tax is imposed on them. This is done not with violence but instead with a challenge. The arrogant British captain, Russel, decides to try to humiliate the villagers by challenging them to a game of cricket, if they win they get to go tax free, if they lose they must pay triple the tax that is owed. With no other choice the deal is accepted and the greatest Bollywood sports montages of all time follow.
Part of what makes this film so exceptional is how well it blends Bollywood and British styles. Right when the tension of the film is at its peak the actors break into song and dance. Usually this is something I would absolutely hate, but in Lagaan it works to perfection. The acting styles are also on different ends of the spectrum, the British cast members have a far more straight forward classical acting style which makes them feel even less likable while the Indian actors are full of humor and raw emotion. This is one of the most uplifting, fun, and well made films I have seen, and even after the three-hour and forty-four minute runtime I was craving more.
The only gangster film to rival The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America is an inner city opera. We follow five boys, who are petty thefts, as they work their way from pick pockets to crime bosses in Manhattan. The story jumps around chronologically which makes it all the more emotional as we cut between the characters as bad men, innocent children, and old folks with regrets. In fact, part of what makes the film so special is that it’s more of a coming of age story than a straight forward gangster movie.
If you have seen a Sergio Leone film before you know how great of a storyteller he is. Now imagine him directing a cast that includes Rebert DeNiro, James Woods and Joe Pesci, pretty awesome right? This whole film is brilliant, it looks beautiful, the acting is amazing, the sound design and music are perfect thanks to Ennio Morricone, and Leone’s ability to capture drama brings it all together. Then you have the last shot of the film, one of the greatest endings ever, which makes you question everything you have just seen and feel like you need to watch all three hours and forty nine minutes of the film again.
One of the best non-combat war films ever made “Underground” tells the story of two friends in Yugoslavia from WWII through the Yugoslavian Wars. The movie is split into three parts appropriately titled The War, The Cold War, and The War. It is a surreal journey into the soul of a country that no longer exists. All that is left behind is the love and pain of its former inhabitants. “Underground” is both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.
Marko and Blacky are to jokers that join the Communist party to try to drive the Nazis out of Belgrade. An arrangement is made for Blacky and his friends to live in an underground shelter to produce weapons for the resistance while Marko lives above ground to act as a link. Unfortunately even after the war was won Marko decides to keep his underground workers in the dark so he can sell weapons during the Cold War. The plot is so absurd but Emir Kusturica directs the hell out of it making this film an experience unlike any other.
One of my favorite movies of all time, Once Upon A Time In The West is a blend between American and Italian westerns. Sergio Leone is at the top of his game directing Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in his gritty tale of the railways taking over the West. Bronson plays a drifter with a harmonica who teams up with an outlaw to protect a vulnerable widow from the railroad’s hired gun. After the murder of her family the widow, played by the stunning Claudia Cardinale, is being forced to sell her land at a bargain price to the railroad. When she realizes the value of her property things start to heat up as the railroads assassin, Henry Fonda, goes toe to toe with Bronson to decide the fate of a small western town.
This film is the very definition of an epic. The first scene of the film practically stands alone as its own 10 minute short and is one of the best intros in the history of cinema. Leone and composer Ennio Morricone once again team up to bring the wild west to life in a truly spectacular fashion that will never be forgotten. If you like westerns or just amazingly told stories “Once Upon a Time in the West” is something you have to see.