Being asked to name my favorite films usually gives me the same sort of sensation I suspect I’d get if I were ever to discover a coiled rattlesnake in my dirty clothes hamper.
I mean, it’s a mug’s game. My tastes can hardly be expected to be superior to anyone else’s . . .
(Brief pause for rolling of eyes from the Readership.)
. . . and, even more, my tastes can be rather plebeian (to put it politely, and I’ve been wanting to use “plebeian” in a sentence for some time now, so I feel better). What’s more: who’s to say this list is Final? Ask me again to make my choices in, say, another twenty years, and I could very probably come up with a list of different titles.
But a rather sincere friend recently made the request, intimating that he wanted to plumb the depths of my particular tastes. When placed in such a light then the notion of forming the dreaded “Favorites List” seems more as an intellectual exercise than a burden. Perhaps, instead of Rorschach inkblots, psychoanalysts should employ a favorite film list in order to determine personality traits.
So, pumpkins, let’s go ahead and play. Here we have Your Humble Unkster, marooned on that ever-convenient desert island (albeit equipped with a steady source of electricity and a decent video player). What films would I choose to share my exile with?
2001: A Space Odyssey
Okay, obvious choice on my part. And having to choose from among Kubrick’s films was one of those efforts which, to be honest, made my teeth hurt. But, when all is said and done, I am a die-hard science-fiction fan, and this film was and still is one of the definite touchstones of the genre. Although not beginning the marketing blitz that “Star Wars” would inaugurate, it was with this film that Kubrick threw the gauntlet down: proving that a serious SF film could be made. Not only that, but “2001” raised the bar for production standards as far as SF films were concerned, and only the lazy would turn back.
(Alternate choices: “Metropolis”, “Forbidden Planet”.)
Oh, come now. Was anyone surprised? If I can only take twenty films with me onto my desert island, then at least give me the grace to select films I could watch over and over again. And this is a classic I’ve never grown tired of.
(Alternate choices: “The Big Sleep”, “To Have and Have Not”.)
I’ve chosen this one for two reasons. First, I know it’d make Young Son grit his teeth.
Second, as with “Casablanca”, this is a film I never grow tired of. Welles’ magic not only shows in the story and dialogue, but in the cinematography . . . hell, in just about everything.
(Alternate choices: “The Trial”/1962, “The Third Man”.)
Colossus: The Forbin Project
Being a child of my times, I’d want at least one Cold War thriller with me. And if it’s also a SF film, then so much the better. This is a movie that, to my way of thinking, doesn’t receive nearly the respect it deserves. Not only that, but a story about the world being taken over by computers seems more relevant now than back in 1970 when the film was made.
(Alternate choices: “The Chairman”, “The Andromeda Strain”.)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
Okay, I absolutely must have at least one Ray Harryhausen film with me. And, as with Kubrick, making a choice from all of the Maestro’s accomplishments produced something in the way of a severe ethical crisis. The story here is certainly bare bones simple, and there are more than a few incongruities (husband and wife are buzzed by a UFO and essentially shrug it off). But, as is usual in such a film, it is Harryhausen’s effects which steal the show. Visually captivating flying saucers skim effortlessly about, and the climactic scene (with the aliens laying waste to Washington DC) lacks for nothing in the way of style.
(Alternate choices: “Jason and the Argonauts”, “First Men in the Moon”.)
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Or, as I sometimes tend to call it, “Ocean’s 11.5”.
As with Ray Harryhausen, I have got to have at least one Wes Anderson film with me, and this piece of animated charm fills the ticket. The script is crisp, everyone involved in voice work delivers 150%, and the rules for Whackbat alone are worth including this film in the list. Anderson is on my short list of directors whose films I can watch over and over again. And, for my money, Petey didn’t write a bad song.
(Alternate choices: “Moonrise Kingdom”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”.)
The War of the Worlds
Speaking of films that I could watch over and over again, I’ve long ago lost count of how many times I’ve sat through this. And it never fails to hold me. Quite easily the crown jewel in producer George Pal’s career, holding up exquisitely well over sixty years later. Someone once described the first attack by the Martians as “the best fifteen minutes of Technicolor ever made”, and I’d hardly argue the point.
(Alternate choices: “Forbidden Planet”, “The Time Machine”/1960, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.)
The Godfather Saga
Okay, obviously cheating here. But I’m including “The Godfather”, “The Godfather Part II”, and “The Godfather Part III” in one package because, frankly, I feel these need to be seen all at once. I’m suspecting that, when the final line is written (“and it’s certain that the curtain’s gonna fall”), “The Godfather” films will be considered Coppola’s masterwork.
Norman Rockwell once did a painting of an American family tree; showing how a bright-cheeked WASP boy was actually the product of generations of thieves, mongrels (or what would be considered mogrels by some unfortunate minds), cutthroats and vagabonds. The “Godfather” films is Coppola’s version of Rockwell’s painting: uncompromising, very often brutal and, ultimately, very American.
(Alternate choices: “The Cotton Club”, “Apocalypse Now”.)
Goodnight, My Love
A little-known gem from what I tend to call the Golden Age of made-for-television films. Richard Boone and Michael Dunn play a pair of private eyes who become involved in a “Maltese Falcon” style plot set in 1946 Los Angeles. The cast also includes Barbara Bain (playing a Mary Astor knockoff), and Victor Buono (nimbly stealing quite a bit of Sydney Greenstreet’s thunder).
Filmed in 1972, this was the film which launched the directorial career of Peter Hyams. Hyams has gone on to pooh-pooh this effort, but it remains my favorite among his work.
(Alternate choice: “Hammett”)
Ivan the Terrible
And, along with Ray Harryhausen, Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick, I must have at least one Sergei Eisenstein film with me. His two-part historical epic on the life of Ivan IV of Russia ably fills the bill. Commissioned by no less than Stalin himself (who, not too unexpectedly, turned out to be more harmful to the production than helpful), the film is a collection of brilliantly constructed scenes, all set to a score by none other than Sergei Prokofiev. In the title role, Nikolai Chersakov is given far more to do than he delivered in “Alexander Nevsky”. Much of it over the top (with attendant scenery chewing), but, then again, we’re not watching the story of Mother Teresa here.
(Alternate choices: “Alexander Nevsky”.)
Here I’m choosing my personal favorite among the available versions: the 1943 production directed by Robert Stevenson. Visually impressive, the cinematography is exceeded only by Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine as they deliver John Houseman’s, Aldous Huxley’s, Henry Koster’s and Stevenson’s adaptation of perhaps the finest romantic dialogue ever rendered in the English language.
As a rule, I usually skip over the rather dismal scenes taking place at Lowood and fast-forward to when Fontaine and Welles meet, then sit in barely restrained drooling pleasure.
(Alternate choice: “Rebecca”.)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
John Cassavetes proved himself to be as brilliant a director as he was an actor, and I point to this as his high-water mark. Here he puts Ben Gazzara through rather rough paces as Cosmo Vitelli: owner of a sleazy burlesque club. To pay off a gambling debt, Vitelli agrees to murder the titular Chinese bookie. Unfortunately (for Vitelli, not for the viewer), the situation goes south very quickly.
A character drama, rather than a crime drama, the film is not only a showcase for Cassavetes’ directorial skills, but for Gazzara’s woefully underrated acting ability. The scene where Gazzara sits in the dressing room of his burlesque “stars”, and delivers his personal philosophy, should be required viewing for all would-be directors (and not a few would-be actors).
Besides, my list needs at one film with a sleazeball character as the star.
(Alternate choice: “The Hustler”.)
Right now you’re going “Oh, Mister Artsy-Fartsy here!”
Guilty as charged (“Guilty! My evil self is at that door!”). And yes, I essentially disagree with director Godfrey Reggio’s premise that Man (and Man’s technology) is throwing the world out of balance. Well . . . sucks to Reggio. Man, as well as his tools, are as much a part of the world as the landscape which the film would have us believe is being threatened by things such as a woman trying to light a cigarette on a busy city street corner.
(I’m Uncle Mikey and I approve this statement.)
But, all messages aside, “Koyaanisqatsi” undeniably carries the power to hold the viewer. Ron Fricke’s cinematography, complete with various camera tricks, almost hypnotizes the viewer (the process ably abetted by the music of Philip Glass). The result is an 86 minute travelogue across the world, and across the relationship (threatened or otherwise) between the world and those who live on it. Easily the most visual of all the films on this list.
(Alternate choices: “The Hellstrom Chronicle”, “Fantasia”.)
Not exactly certain why I felt I needed a Woody Allen film on the list. But I admit to an addiction to complexity, and Allen has a talent for filling his characters with dimensions which make his comedies unique.
(“Oh, Artsy-Fartsy here!”)
All right, all right. But, as a valentine to New York City, no other film comes close to “Manhattan”, and Allen manages to make his passion for NYC contagious. Here we find Allen’s patented neurotic/romantic Everyman once again trying to juggle conflicting love interests (Diane Keaton primarily among them), with New York and the music of George Gershwin providing a constant backdrop. Love him or hate him, at least admit to yourself that Allen has managed to almost match Chaplin in his ability to take a particular character and run with it through film after film.
The opening scene, with Allen’s voice-over attempting to start a novel, should be watched by all authors.
(Alternate choices: “Annie Hall”, “Play It Again, Sam”.)
My favorite silent film. My favorite French film . . .
Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece is not without its flaws. At well over five hours in length it reveals Gance’s love affair with certain camera effects (and his very occasional need for a stern editor). But beyond that the film manages to tower over many others. Perhaps due to its 1980 restoration by Kevin Brownlow. the film nonetheless rises above many of the cinematic shortcomings that contemporary audiences tend to paint on productions from the Silent Era. The length of the film is also more than ably carried by Albert Dieudonne’s performance in the title role. The brilliance of films from the Silent Era lay in large part with actors who could expertly demonstrate a wide range of emotions in order to carry the story, and Dieudonne becomes a virtual library of humanity: at turns enigmatic, stricken or joyous at the drop of a hat.
A film worthy of its title.
(Alternate selections: “The Shiek”, “The Gold Rush”.)
Yes . . . Kubrick, Anderson, Harryhausen, Eisenstein, Allen . . .
And now I sat back and contemplated a Hitchcock selection. Can we say “ouch”?
Ultimately, though, I narrowed it down to this 1954 goodie. Hitchcock, ever the consummate trickster, allowed himself full rein in filming a nifty murder mystery thriller. Bedridden photojournalist L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is riding out a heatwave in his Greenwich Village apartment. Amusing himself by observing his neighbors he suspects that a murder has taken place. Or has it? Hitchcock doesn’t tell us right away, but relentlessly teases us to the point where we accept Stewart’s reasoning out of sheer exasperation (and also because . . . well . . . he’s James Stewart for criminy’s sake).
The brilliance in this film is that, by placing Stewart’s apartment (and his voyeurism) firmly in the foreground, Hitchcock essentially makes Stewart a part of the audience . . . or, better yet, he makes the audience a part of the film. We are given the same information that Stewart receives. His theories become our theories, his mistakes become our mistakes . . .
(Unfortunately, Stewart’s love affair with Grace Kelly doesn’t easily translate into our love affair with Grace Kelly. Oh, well, one can’t have everything.)
The Master at his gleeful best.
(Alternate choices: “North by Northwest”, “Saboteur”, “Rope”, “To Catch a Thief” . . . oh hell, practically any Hitchcock film would do.)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Another “must have” SF film, and another directorial gem from Byron Haskin (who also lensed “The War of the Worlds”, among other classics). This film bridges the gap between the pulp-SF tradition of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and the post-NASA asceticism of “2001”. Haskin’s direction, Winton Hoch’s cinematography, and the screenplay by John Higgins and Ib Melchior mesh well to put Paul Mantee and Vic Lundin through their paces as two men (one human, one extraterrestrial) trying to survive the hostile conditions of the planet Mars (as well as pursuing aliens). Considering the advances in both technology and scientific knowledge over the years, this film holds up remarkably well.
(Alternate choices: rather difficult to choose, but I’ll stretch several points to list “Marooned” and “The Sound Barrier”.)
The Shoes of the Fisherman
Another Cold War thriller, but wearing quite an interesting disguise. Based on the novel by Morris West, the story has the Chairman of the Soviet Union (Sir Laurence Olivier) freeing a political prisoner (Anthony Quinn) who happens to be a Catholic Archbishop. The idea is to place Quinn’s character back in play within the Church in order to find some method to avert an approaching nuclear war with China. The Chairman’s plan succeeds better than he hoped for, with Quinn’s Archbishop eventually becoming Pope.
Directed with a serene form of tension by Michael Anderson, the film carries numerous subplots and side trips. Fortunately (at least to my way of thinking) the actors smoothly manage to carry it off and, in the meantime, we get a rather watchable look into the inner workings of the Vatican.
(Alternate choices: “The Manchurian Candidate”, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”.)
The Court Jester
Almost too late I realized I needed at least one genuine comedy to leaven all the gloom. This might generate the most debate out of all my choices, but I can’t think of a better deliverer of laugh (especially in repeat performances). Here we have Danny Kaye hamming it up in the title role. But the ham is lean and sizzling, and Kaye delivers with a smile. Along for the ride are Basil Rathbone, Cecil Parker, Mildred Natwick, as well as both Glynis John and Angela Lansbury (competing to see whose bosom bubbles out of whose rather revealing bodice first. I tell you, it’s sometimes more than a red-blooded male can stand . . .).
The film manages to also work as a nifty little adventure, and Kaye demonstrates that his swash can buckle with the best of them (especially in a sword duel with Rathbone). But his comedic work is, as always, more deft than his swordplay, and co-directors/writers Melvin Frank and Norman Panama wisely let Kaye do what he does best. This is also the film with the famous “the pellet with the poison is in the vessel with a pestle” routine, and it never fails to produce a smile.
(Alternate choices: “It Happened One Night”, “Duck Soup”.)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
If I had allowed myself more than twenty films for this list, I would’ve somehow squeezed in a Sergio Leone Western (not to mention other films like “Paris Blues”, “The World, The Flesh and the Devil”, “Fail-Safe”, etc. etc. etc. etc). As it was, trying to choose from among my favorite Westerns was another brush with agony.
Trying to choose from among John Ford’s Westerns . . .
And, to be honest, I don’t consider “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (or the other two films in Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy”) to be a Western. Rather, I consider it a “military” picture. Yes, the story takes place in the American West of 1876. But an audience composed of an ancient Persian satabam . . . or soldiers from the 21st century . . . could watch Ford’s cavalry films and nod in understanding. The technology might change, or the tactics differ, but Army life is Army life no matter when, and no matter where.
Here, Wayne plays a US Cavalry captain in charge of the usual Ford ensemble cast (Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey Jr.), struggling to maintain the peace in the days immediately following Custer’s enormous oopsie at the Little Bighorn (and, at the same time, dealing with his own approaching retirement). Once again Ford employs a story by James Warner Bellah, and his screenwriters (Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings) put the tale to good use, resulting in some of the best scenes Ford ever lensed (one piece in particular, with Wayne’s troop burying a private who had been a Confederate General, is a particularly well-realized example of cinematic poignancy).
(Alternate choices: “They Were Expendable”, “The Quiet Man”.)