There were a number of programmes on TV during the run-up to the death of 2005 that detailed lists of movies that people rated very highly. Around Halloween I assembled a list of horror films I admired.
Today I’m delineating the non-genre (not sf/fantasy/horror/action/thriller) films that burn brightly in my imagination.
When I mull over the choices there are many criteria I could use, such as excellent acting, innovative direction, and intelligent writing. In this case I have chosen films that left an undeniable emotional impact upon me after watching them. Of course it’s deeply personal.
After viewing each of these films I came away with the thought “This is why I watch films” – if I even had a thought, because one or two of them filled my mind completely afterwards. It’s impossible to restrict this to ten, so instead I choose thirteen.
* Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1955)
It is almost impossible to state what is your favourite film of all time, but De Sica’s black and white masterpiece is one of the contenders.
This film slayed me the first time I saw it. Others might prefer The Bicycle Thief, which is wonderful too, but in my opinion De Sica was in top form while making this film. The story is simple and incredibly touching, it is beautifully shot, and the acting is fresh and natural. The main character is old, grumpy, and often unlikeable, but it is his plight (not being any “use” in the world any more) and his relationship with his little dog that engages us. The final scene is incredible: both intensely sad, and containing a spark of hope.
* Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colours Blue, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)
How can you have a list of this nature without Kieslowski? Blue, which details a woman’s journey from the depths of despair, isolation and grief through to a reconnection with the world and the possibility of future love, is an astounding film. In particular I was blow away by the cinematography, the evocative editing, and the use of colour.
* Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
After some films the only word that summarises your feelings is “Wow!” In the case of Requiem it was “Fuck!” Brutal, innovative, and compelling. I felt I’d been in the ring for ten rounds with a heavyweight by the end. I own this film, but it would take guts to watch it again. Aronofsky is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.
* The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Most people chose The Godfather, parts I or II, but for me The Conversation is a gem. A study of paranoia, obsession, and guilt, with a devastating ending: what more can I say? Filmmaking doesn’t get much better than this.
* Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
There’s a reason this film continues to make the “best of” lists. I was lucky to watch it for the first time in a cinema. The beautiful shots; the disjointed narrative; the exploration of a complex character. It’s eternally watchable, and you’ll continue to learn from it, partly because it remains surprisingly modern. It’s hard to imagine that this was badly received when it first opened.
* Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
I have to include this film in the list. The first time I saw it was during a retrospective by an art house cinema, so I saw it on the big screen. From its opening shot I was hooked. It’s a journey into madness and chaos, and exposes the inherent craziness of war. The scene at the bridge is etched in my mind. I was incapable of saying anything other than incoherent babbling phrases after I emerged from the dark.
* Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
I waited until the very last day this film was being shown (and if you remember this film ran in cinemas for months) to watch it. Partly because of the gruelling subject matter. I’m so glad I watched it in the cinema, despite the aching voyage through the worst (and best) aspects of human nature. Spielberg is an emotional director, and this is an incredible achievement with touchy subject matter.
* 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
The last day of freedom for a convicted drug dealer – and yet you feel sympathy for him. This film is about regret, and the acceptance of responsibility for wrong-doing. It’s also about the need for dreams, even when the future is bleak. Set in a New York reeling from the events of September 11th, 2001, this is a portrait of a man, full of regret, reflecting upon his past.
* Le Mépris (Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
Some people prefer À Bout de Souffle or Bande à Part, but this examination of the disintegration of a marriage remains my favourite Godard movie. I love its layers: the commentary on European versus American sensibilities, the death of love between two people, the film-within-the-film (Ulysses), and of course Godard’s direction and use of colour. A film others might hate, but one that I adore.
* Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
I stumbled out of the cinema after seeing this film, my mind full of images of people in the throes of rage, love and passion. Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear set in feudal Japan is a deliberation upon the follies of youth and age, the grim repercussions of violence, and the madness that can attend power. I love Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but this is my favourite of his oeuvre (that I have seen).
* Festen (The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)
A Dogme 95 film, this is an example of how hand-held camera work can be utilised to best effect. It’s the script, the acting, and the unrelenting pursuit of truth and the unmasking of hidden family secrets that makes this a tour de force. There is such understanding of human emotion in this film. Despite its tough subject matter Festen never devolves into mawkish sentimentality or lecturing.
* Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1967)
“I love this dirty town.” There’s nobody to like in this film and yet it is utterly compelling. A study of ambition, greed, and jealously, with a grubby New York as its backdrop, this is a film that screenwriters should dissect. Brilliant direction, a fine script with some truly quotable dialogue. Lancaster and Curtis shine in this movie. I’ll leave the last word to J.J. : “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”
* The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999)
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of David Lynch’s work, and in particular I love his mind-bending visions of (un)reality, such as Lost Highway, Mullholland Drive, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In this film Lynch plays it straight, and guides us on a slow, thoughtful path into the American heartland and one man’s desire for a reunion with his brother before it’s too late. It’s superb storytelling that’s not afraid to take its time without becoming ponderous.
* Adam & Paul (Leonard Abrahamson, 2004)
I said I’d pick thirteen films,
but I feel that I should add a bonus film from the Irish. Most people would choose one from the canon of the more-established Jim Sheridan or Neil Jordan (and indeed The Butcher Boy is vying for this spot), but Lenny Abrahamson and Mark O’Halloran’s recent film was a breath of fresh air on the Irish scene. How can a film that follows the day in the life of two Dublin junkies be melancholic, funny and elegiac? If only Ireland produced more films like this.
There are other contenders–so many more are leaping for my attention–but I’ve already gone on too much.
If I ever approach the genius of some of the above films I will have a smile on my face in my coffin.
I swear this will be the final addition to the list! I definitely intended adding this film when I first considered putting this list together.
* Miller’s Crossing (The Coen Brothers, 1990)
It’s a tough task to choose one film to represent what’s been an inspiring filmmaking career by the Coen Brothers. There are so many gems to choose from, and three others that really stand out for me, personally, are The Big Lebowski, Fargo and The Hudsucker Proxy. Miller’s Crossing, however, made a huge impression when I saw it. It’s an incredible cinematic achievement of fine production values and direction, enigmatic characters, a gorgeous soundtrack and a clever script. At the end when Tom (Gabriel Byrne) responds to the statement “Look into your Heart!” with “What heart?”, and then completes the necessary action, it is a fitting pinnacle to this gangster flick. And who can forget the amazing sequence when Leo (Albert Finney) chases down, and kills, the assassins with a tommy gun; and throughout it he has the cigar firmly clamped between his teeth as “Danny Boy” swells in the background? Fantastic! As Tom says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”