EDITORIAL: The 10 best movies set in Hawaii

(Image: isabelrose.com)

The arrival of Cameron Crowe's "Aloha" brings our moviegoing audience focus to the nation's 50th and youngest state.  As a top vacation destination, a wondrous volcanic archipelago unlike any place else, and an American jewel of paradise in the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii has been romanticized and used as the setting, both actual and borrowed, for many films over the years since it became an official U.S. state in 1959.  Any time you watch "Jurassic Park," you're not seeing Costa Rica, you're seeing the backdrop of Hawaii standing in.  The same thing goes for "Avatar," "Tropic Thunder," and dozens of others.  That doesn't make it a movie specifically about the Aloha State.  

With that qualifier in mind, let's look at the best films set in and about Hawaii, its people, citizens, and history.  To make this list, the film has to actually be about and predominantly set in Hawaii.  Any movies that start or end somewhere else, where Hawaii is purely a side trip or vacation, are not good enough.  Here are the top ten as they stand before the arrival of "Aloha" this weekend.  Can that film crack this list?  We shall see.

DISHONORABLE MENTION #1: "50 First Dates"-- This website has long not veiled its ever-present and growing disdain for all things Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.  He's a hack and his movies are terrible and Drew Barrymore is a terrible actress.  There.  I've said it.  Their shared big hit from 2004 is a wonderful look at the state of Hawaii, but it's dumb and overrated.  I cannot bring myself to include it on this list.  The same goes for "Punch Drunk Love" and "Just Go With It."  

DISHONORABLE MENTION #2:  "Pearl Harbor"-- Michael Bay's bloated and cloying World War II epic is probably the highest profile and most expensive film to be about Hawaii, but it too can't crack this list.  It's too inaccurate, forced, and excessive.  It's a beautiful mess, but not a good enough film, which is shocking considering the bottom of this top ten list and other bloated messes.  Put "Tora! Tora! Tora!" right there with Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" as being something also too bloated to be considered the best.  Let's face it.  I don't think Hollywood has made a good Pearl Harbor movie in 74 years of trying.


10.  TIE-- "In Harm's Way" (1965) and "Hawaii"  (1966)-- Before the days of Michael Bay, these were the old school two bloated blockbusters set in Hawaii.  "In Harm's Way" has the trivia fact of being John Wayne's last black-and-white film and a two-hour-and-forty-five-minute Otto Preminger-directed odyssey covering the lead up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Though dated with not a lot of data, it sits at 40% on Rotten Tomatoes.  The state-titled "Hawaii" fairs a little better at 70% and spoke to the island's 19th century history with potential settlers, but it is only four minutes shorter and not much to write home about.  The bottom is here.  (trailer and trailer)

9.  "Diamond Head" (1962)-- Charleton Heston's manly presence and the gorgeous location shooting put this torrid, trashy affair a notch on the list higher than the bloated epics.  Come on!  It's Charleton Heston!  You don't think he'd make a convincing pineapple land baron?!  (tribute trailer)

8.  "A Perfect Getaway" (2009)-- The raw and majestic beauty of the Hawaiian islands may seem like an ideal paradise of privacy and seclusion.  The other side of that coin is when all of that space and scenery becomes too isolated, unknown, daunting, and potentially terrifying.  "Pitch Black" director David Twohy put out this sneaky little stalking/slasher thriller out six years ago starring Timothy Olyphant, Milla Jovovich, Steve Zahn, and a then-unknown Chris Hemsworth.  It was a modest hit that found an audience.    (trailer)

7.  "Blue Crush" (2002)-- Surfing is synonymous with Hawaii even to the point of being a gross stereotype as if every island resident can perform that sea-faring sport before they can even ride a bike.  Kate Bosworth burst onto the scene with this crowdpleaser.  The surfing photography is amazing despite a very forgettable story.  This list gets better.  I promise.  (trailer)

6.  "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008)-- Here's where we cross into some clear quality.  Though not definitively showcasing Hawaii more than a good backdrop, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is easily one of the best pure movies to grace the islands.  The "certified fresh" 85% Rotten Tomatoes performer made big screen stars out of TV actors Jason Segal, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Russell Brand.  Movies higher than "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" on this list are definitely not as good as this one, but we're scoring the best for the state of Hawaii as a focus here and this romantic comedy keeps that factor small.  (trailer)

5.  "Blue Hawaii" (1961)-- No Hawaiian film list is complete without the presence of "The King" himself.  "Blue Hawaii" isn't a great film by any means, but it was one of Elvis Presley's biggest cinematic hits and introduced the new state to a national and worldwide audience.  It makes the top 5 of this list purely for historical significance as most peoples' first visions and dreams of Hawaii.  (trailer)

4.  "Lilo and Stitch" (2002)-- Even though this was created and animated in a studio somewhere in either California or Florida, Disney's cute-as-a-button animated hit does a fantastic job showcasing Hawaii, its roots, vibrancy, and fun.  It also earns points for not trying to going "full princess" with a more modern and accessible story that looks far less traditional than Disney's usual efforts in hindsight.  (trailer)

3.  "Soul Surfer" (2011)-- "Soul Surfer," with its marvelous and courageous true story backbone (about professional surfer Bethany Hamilton), embedded sports mythos, and a dash of faith-based heart, makes "Blue Crush" look like a grain of sand on a random beach.  Anna-Sophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, and Helen Hunt put in wonderful family performances in a poignant, touching, and inspirational film that all young girls should see.  It's a sentimental favorite of mine that I probably have higher on my list than anyone else.  (trailer)  (my full review)

2.  "From Here to Eternity" (1953)-- This was, without question, the first great film set in Hawaii and held that title as the best for nearly 60 years until my vote for #1 showed up in 2011.  "From Here to Eternity" won eight Academy Awards out of 13 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinneman), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), and Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed).  The challenging internal and external struggles of three soldiers (Burt Landcaster, Montgomery Clift, and Sinatra) stationed in Hawaii and the women in their lives made for a tremendously impactful ensemble character picture that stands the test of time today when viewed again.  Everyone remembers that Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr kissing-in-the-waves moment that will be forever played, but the island itself gets plenty more attention and love.  (trailer)

1.  "The Descendants" (2011)-- This may be a controversial choice, but I think Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," this website's #1 film on the list of the "10 Best" of 2011, is finest film set in and about Hawaii.  "From Here to Eternity" transcends plenty and won far more Oscars (8 to 1), but the intimate island and "hoale" history woven throughout "The Descendants" boosts it to the top of this list when it comes to featuring Hawaii.  As a heart-tugging "dramedy," George Clooney put on a Humphrey Bogart/Rick Blaine-level performance to shed his movie star persona to play a broken man in a broken situation with heart and reserve.  The film hit me like a ton of bricks harder than "From Here to Eternity."  I can't sing its praises enough.  (trailer)  (my full review)