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The Five Best Revenge Movies

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Revenge, or retaliation is as old an impulse as the reptile brain. “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy, opened on Christmas, following the spring release of “The Avengers.” The theme of revenge, it seems, and the business of avenging was strong in this year passed. Lately, however, it seems as if Tarantino (“Kill Bill,” “Inglorious Basterds”) has taken proprietorship of the whole revenge fantasy film genre. But he is not alone, of course. “The Dark Knight Rising” is in its entirety from start to finish a paean to revenge, from Bane’s revenge against The Bat to The Bat’s revenge against Bane.

Quentin may be on to something. Revenge, when done well, is as immensely satisfying a cinematic experience as it is a dark psychological pleasure that arose in dark antiquity. The feeling of satisfaction from a revenge fantasy movie is not entirely unlike how at the end of TV’s “Law and Order” the bad guys – generally – get their comeuppance. The viewer feels as if all is well and good in the world (even though, of course, it often is not) after a hard day of work in a universe where fortune appears to favor the most aggressive and ethically neutral among us. And who among us wouldn’t prefer to watch Spielberg’s “Munich” than, say, Angelina Jolie’s massive downer of a film, “A Mighty Heart”? Would you rather pay admission to “A Mighty Heart” over “Munich”?

In the spirit of revenge, in all its dark glory, here are my five favorite films from that genre:


5. “Leon: The Professional” (1994)

Icy-precise hitman Leon Montana led a pretty nihilistic, efficient life until he took the contract of little Mathilda. Mathilde, played by Natalie Portman, seeks the avenging of the death of her family by the sleazy-precise corrupt DEA agent Stansfield in an apartment complex. The death of her innocent four year old brother and the powerlessness of a twelve year old girl against such forces of governmental corruption strike a universal chord. And the redemption of Leon, one of the most loveable cold-blooded killers of all time, makes this film truly a superlative example of revenge fantasy. Rest in pieces, brother.


4. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

“Revenge,” hisses Khan Noonien Singh, “is a dish best served cold.” This, Khan tells us, is an old Klingon proverb, but many actual civilizations have lived by that same idea. Fifteen years earlier, Captain James Kirk stranded Khan in the remains of the USS Botany Bay to live out the rest of his days in the cold embrace of outer freaking space. How cool is that? Sheer geekiness notwithstanding, Star Trek II is an instance of a sequel outdoing the original. The slowly played out space cat and mouse game is masterful, a cosmic dance. “The Wrath of Khan” is timeless, transcending the limited appeal of mere science fiction.


3. “The Unforgiven” (1960)

Before Clint Eastwood made an ass of himself chatting with an empty chair in public, he was one of the greatest American badasses of all time. “The Unforgiven,” widely seen at the time as “the last Western” is also about Redemption, one of the thematic pillars of any great revenge story. There is nothing conventionally good about any of the characters, outlaws all. Eastwood, as aging outlaw William Munny, is no saint – and neither are his gunfighter sidekicks or the prostitutes who post a $1,000 bounty on the heads of the animals that disfigured one of their own.  And yet our primal, reptile brains cannot help but anticipate with dark joy the bloody comeuppance sure to come. Delicious.


2. “Gladiator” (2000)

“Gladiator,” on its surface, is formulaic. The noble Maximus is wronged by Power. He struggles, against all odds, and gets his revenge. And the film won Best Picture. Still, this is not Rocky II. The execution is so brilliant, the story so perfect, the acting so convincing, that Gladiator of the only movies that I have ever seen where the audience at the theater broke into applause several times during the film as well as at the end. Gladiator can only be properly construed as cathartic. We cheer at the sanguinary death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus because he didn’t deserve the throne; we cheer at the death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus every time power, unearned, holds its boots to our collective necks. Rest in peace, Maximus; semper fi.


1. “The Godfather” (1974)

Not only is “The Godfather” one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, it is the greatest revenge fantasy in the history of cinema. Vito Corleone, granted, is not as noble as the Roman soldier Maximus, but he, after his own fashion, is not without an ancient moral code guiding his behavior.

Three of the film’s most effective scenes involve intricate depictions of the psychology of revenge in an almost classic tragic form. In the first, Vito Corleone movingly forgoes revenge for the death of Sonny, withdrawing his objections to the Tattaglia’s in the meeting with the Five Families for the sake of peace. In the second hugely effective rendering of the psychology of revenge, Michael Corleone, the next generation of Don, bides his time and brutally exacts his revenge, consolidating his power. And in the final, and most effective scene involving the psychology of revenge, Michael – the son of his father — blatantly lies to his wife, Kay, about the bloody-tragic actions he set in motion.

Retaliation, or revenge, is as old as the reptile brain, but it is that most civilized of human art –motion pictures – that has fully expressed that impulse in all its dark, glorious beauty.


What is your favorite revenge movie? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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