Acclaimed director Keisuke Kinoshita adapted a Shichirō Fukazawa novel in 1958, setting his haunting film in rural, 19th-century Japan. Ballad of Narayama — which arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion today — explores an ancient folkloric tradition in which elderly and infirmed relatives are carried to a mountain and left to die. Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) approaches her 70th year and faces her final days on Mount Narayama, but she embarks on a quest to secure her family’s happiness before her journey to the mountain. It’s an allegorical, stylish Japanese classic that inspires thoughts of other epic film quests — stories that defined obsession, sacrifice, adventure, greed, self-discovery, and a search for the truth. Add to our list, below.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a 19th-century gold miner who monopolizes a California town that happens to be an untapped wellspring of oil. A tycoon is awakened, and Plainview embarks on his ruthless quest for wealth, sacrificing his own son on the altar of an oil rig that explodes, signaling Plainview’s singleminded purpose. An opportunistic businessman posing as his brother and an ambitious preacher are mere cogs in the pipeline for Plainview who eventually isolates himself in his mansion built on sludge.
Lauren Greenfield’s controversial documentary reveals the interior lives of a wealthy timeshare mogul and his family as they set out to build the largest, most expensive single-family home in the States. Once the economy takes a dip, we watch as Westgate Resorts CEO, David A. Siegel, and his aging Barbie doll wife, Jackie, contend with their own greed while their palace sits frozen in limbo. The billionaire couple’s revolting display of excess lingers as Jackie continues her quest for youth and status, while David scrambles to revive his fading empire and chaotic home — now littered with the carcasses and excrement of his family’s neglected pets.
Paying homage to another obsessive story, The Searchers — in which John Wayne’s loner, Ethan, is also an outsider with an ambiguous moral streak — Taxi Driver details Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) quest to rescue a young hooker (Jodie Foster) and restore balance to his crime-ridden city. Presidential hopeful Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) and a pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel) become the targets of Bickle’s vigilante rage. His own identity shattered after Vietnam, Travis’ violent justice makes him a questionable hero, and his delusions are transformed in the end.
Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi drama finds two men united by the same quest: for knowledge. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) forms an obsession with UFOs after encountering a mysterious spacecraft. Scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) has been investigating a rash of sightings across America. A powerful force compels them to follow all leads — so strong that Neary loses his family in the process. The signs point them to the mother ship and the discovery that they truly are not alone.
John Boorman’s 1967 crime classic features iconic movie heavy Lee Marvin as Walker — a double-crossed man with one thing on his mind. Walker wants the $93,000 that was taken from him. The rest of the plot details are inconsequential as Marvin hypnotically snuffs everyone in his path. Inventive, aggressive camerawork and stylish action set pieces lead us through Walker’s fierce quest for justice in a corporate crime world.
Quentin Tarantino made a film that contains multiple quests within quests — a contemporary spaghetti western set in the antebellum South. A bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) befriends a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), during a mission to wipe out a trio of violent criminals — for a hefty sum, of course. Once the deed is done, they search for Django’s enslaved wife (Kerry Washington) who has been locked away by a charismatic, brutal plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Both men are devoted to each other’s goals. Tarantino had a quest as well: to make a compelling movie about America’s “biggest sin.”
Vanishing Point is a philosophical, minimalist chase film that places Barry Newman (Kowalski) in the role of the anarchic, counterculture archetype who finds freedom in 1970 Dodge Challenger as it barrels down the blacktop away from it all. Richard Sarafian’s road drama is beautifully composed, providing a spare backdrop for his fringe characters that help fuel Kowalski’s symbolic quest.
Before CG epics like Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean (who rightfully deserve to be on this list), there was Columbia’s Jason and the Argonauts in all its stop-motion animated glory. The 1963 high fantasy tale rips its narrative from the pages of mythology. The eponymous Greek hero is guided by fellow warriors and goddesses in a quest for the Golden Fleece — belonging to a golden-haired, winged ram. Like the One Ring, it promises the intrepid adventurer a perilous journey ripe with reward.
We could have easily listed any sex comedy from the 1980s in this spot since one of the central quests in every film from the decade revolved around teens losing their virginity. Weird Science follows suit and finds two nerds seeking social status and the hearts (or beds) of the elusive girls around them. Using some homegrown science and brassieres, they set out to create the perfect woman who pushes them to uncover their self-esteem. Popularity is theirs after a number of shenanigans sends them jumping through hoops, but they eventually get the girl (or at least, a girl).
Steven Spielberg wanted to create a character more epic than James Bond. George Lucas wanted to explore a character that was a throwback to the 1930’s adventure serials. The men collaborated, and Indiana Jones was born — a beloved professor, archaeologist, and all around badass (except when snakes are present). Indy has endured Nazis, cults, Soviet agents, and all the in-betweens during his quests. He’s far from invincible, and that’s why he’s such a likable character — he makes all that wisdom, courage, and the perfect fedora seem within reach. His quest becomes ours as we root for the snarky hero.