22 November 2010

Fifteen Movies

My friend Denise has done one of those Facebook meme things, where you list 'fifteen movies that have influenced you and that will always stick with you', challenging her mates to do likewise. It didn't take me long to hammer out a list of my own, resisting the urge merely to list my favourite films, but having done that I felt an urge to say why I picked these. I did a similar thing last year with books. So, here goes...

1. Seven Samurai
My favourite film, bar none. It's intelligent and beautiful and humane, and there's not a wasted frame in it. I couldn't come close to picking a favourite moment - that opening silhouette of the horses against the sky, the shot of the village from above, old Gisaku's grimacing face, Kambei's haircut, Gorobei's chuckling, Kyuzo's duel, the flower, Kikuchiyo at the waterwheel, the horse in the rain... It's surely no coincidence that my favourite film as a child was, for a while, The Magnificent Seven, or that even now I'm a big fan of A Bug's Life. This was also, as it happens, the first subtitled film that I ever watched from beginning to end.

2. Star Wars: A New Hope
Look, I'm a bloke, what do you expect? I'm not sure any film has ever brought me as much joy. Unlike 'Seven Samurai', this isn't a film that could ever be on a pedestal; it has faults galore, and I can see them all, and I still love it. Sure, it'd be a better film without them, but it'd be a different one. I love it as it is. Sometimes our cracks are part of who we are. And I still think its opening sequence is superb.

3. Casablanca
Like 'Star Wars', the cliches really do have a ball in this film, and Pauline Kael had a point when she said that this is the classic instance of how entertaining a bad film can be. Still, it's sparklingly witty, has perhaps the most exhilarating scene in the history of cinema, and for me stands out as the classic modern take on the Arthurian love triangle. And, of course, it underpins both When Harry Met Sally and Deep Space Nine. Of course.

4. The Maltese Falcon
I like quest stories, and I especially like futile quests. John Huston did them better than anyone, whether in Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Man Who Would Be King, or in this early masterpiece. I'm not convinced that the film's quite as deliciously dark as Hammett's novel, but it has the great Peter Lorre in it, which more than makes up for that, and there's something awe-inspiring about how Sidney Greenstreet fills the screen!

5. Scaramouche
Yeah, I can't defend this. Even hardcore swashbuckler lovers get embarrassed by this one. So what? My younger brother has said that my love for even ropey swashbucklers is my curse, but I don't care. Scaramouche may not be The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Mark of Zorro, but I've loved it since I was a small boy, and I love it now. The colours are gorgeous, the dialogue is hilarious, Janet Leigh is stunning, the long swordfight is breathtaking, and the final scene is wonderful if you don't think about it for too

6. The Birds
Sure, it's not Hitchcock's best film, or even my favourite of his films - that'd surely be either Rear Window or Vertigo - but it was the gateway drug for me, to a point where I now have almost two dozen Hitchcock gilms on my shelves! I saw it when I was about ten, and to this day find it one of the most weirdly unnerving films I've ever seen.

7. The Silence of the Lambs
This was the first film I ever saw in the cinema more than once, and the first time I saw it my knees hurt for hours afterwards, as they'd been tensed so tightly during the film. I've since read and loved the book, and think this well deserved its Oscar Royal Flush; as adaptations go, it rivals To Kill a Mockingbird, and though this film lacks an Atticus Finch, it does at least have a Clarice Starling. For all that Hopkins gets the plaudits for this one, and for all that I've ruined the film for others by reading Agony Aunt columns in his voice, I still think this is Jodie Foster's film.

8. Reservoir Dogs
I saw 'Silence of the Lambs' more than once in the cinema, but the following year I saw 'Reservoir Dogs' four times. I've not seen it in years, and it's a conspicuous gap in my dvd collection, and it's not even one I'm in a hurry to fill, but its impact on me at the time was undeniable. The dialogue astounded me, the claustrophobic staginess of it thrilled me, and above all I was fascinated by the fact that the film was almost - though not quite - in real time. Real-time films like High Noon and Before Sunset have delighted me ever since.

9. Beauty and the Beast
Yes, I know it might seem odd picking this ahead of the Cocteau masterpiece, but let's face it, for all the silvery magic of the 1946 classic (and wasn't that a great year for fantasy films, with A Matter of Life and Death and It's a Wonderful Life all appearing at the same time?), it doesn't have a sleazy candlestick with a comedy French accent, or that expression the Beast pulls when Belle unreasonably refuses to join him for dinner. I love redemption stories anyway, and I have always liked this story of how a thing must be loved before it is able to love. And, of course, it's about an intelligent, sensitive, beautiful girl who loves a clumsy, hairy, awkward man with a lot of books. One can always hope.

10. Stand by Me
It's probably not even Rob Reiner's best film, but Stephen King is a master of conveying small town American life - or so it has always seemed, anyway - and Reiner brought King's strengths to the screen perfectly here. It's funny and thrilling and gross and sad, and is deathly serious when it needs to be. What's more, as a study in boyhood friendship, it's pretty much perfect.

11. Dead Poets Society
For all that he can be too sentimental and twee, I like Robin Williams in this one, and I've come to like Ethan Hawke too. I still cherish watching it in Dave's living room, and at Nayra's going away night, and in Becky's room in halls. Its carpei diem motto still resounds with me, and I always picture the film's final scenes when I hear the story of Laura and Rose and the microphone. Thank you, girls.

12. The Searchers
Its iconic images of Monument Valley, of Wayne's Ethan Edwards silhouetted in the doorway, and of the burning homestead are part of cinema history, of course, but the film has layers and layers below and beyond its visual magnificence. Astonishingly beautiful and painfully bleak, The Searchers is, aside from being probably the finest western ever, a profoundly mythic study in how frighteningly lonely and psychologically insupportable it would be to be the type of man that John Wayne plays in so many of his films. Even the comic scenes, which can look like a frivolous distraction, serve, like the Olympus episodes in the Iliad, to heighten the darkness in Wayne's own character.

13. Dangerous Liaisons
If Beauty and the Beast and the Star Wars films are stories of how a man becomes a monster and then finds himself again, Dangerous Liaisons shows us a monster who realises he is becoming a man and who destroys the only person he loves in an attempt to remain otherwise. Devastatingly intelligent, there's nothing about this film that I don't like. The script, based on Christopher Hampton's play, is as brilliant and cold as the hardest of diamonds, as good an adaptation of Laclos' novel as one might hope for, and the cast is exactly right. Even young Keanu Reeves is good as the gormless Danceny, though he's nothing to Uma Thurman, let alone John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and the luminous Michelle Pfeiffer.

14. Magnolia
I like non-linear storytelling a lot. Citizen Kane is great, Pulp Fiction fascinated me for years, and Short Cuts, when I saw it back in the day, was a revelation. Of all these complex cinematic tapestries, though, Magnolia, for me,  is the one I'm most likely to think of. I know: it's messy, and it's often ugly, and not all of the characters are particularly likeable, but for all the horror it shows us, for all the loneliness, and inadequacy, and guilt, and shame, it's ultimate a deeply compassionate and hopeful film, as profound as it is profane, drinking from the same thematic wells as Krzysztof Kieślowski's tripartite study of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but doing so in an intoxicatingly different and utterly inspiring way. I'm a sucker for films about redemption, and they don't come much better than this.

15. Withnail and I
You know what Paul McGann does when faced with the bull? That works. A friend of mine did a few months back, when he and his wife were confronted with an angry one. You can talk about the poignancy and the quotability of this film all you like, but me, I have two friends who escaped being violently gored thanks to having watched this.

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