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I can't say this list is in any particular order, but these are ten of the films that I could see (and have seen) over and over again. I have given a few of my thoughts about each film and while there may be spoilers within I don't think any of these works would be ruined by knowing what happened. They just aren't those kinds of movies.
Can you possibly have a more poetic, more compelling, and more honest coming of age story? The final moments alone are incredibly stunning (yeah, yeah, spoiler ahead). Antoine Doinel is doing something that he has a talent for– he's running. He runs until he no longer can. And while people of all age can run, to "run away" is really the domain of the young. As we see the beach come into view we realize two things; Antoine will finally be able to fulfill a long awaited childhood dream but he may not be a child much longer. This final scene may show the last true event of his childhood: a chance to experience the sea, something that no child or adult can look at without wonderment. The ocean, something that allows unexplored possibility but can also be the ultimate dead end. When Antoine turns around, and when the iconic freeze frame fills the screen, we know that while age has not physically crept into his visage we are no longer looking into the eyes of a child. Whether or not Antoine knows it, he has escaped his childhood of hooky, petty theft, domestic abuse, and juvenile friendship. Whether or not Antoine know it, we know he will never be able to "run away" again.
"Happiness consists of being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone." So says harried director Guido Anselmi. This quote would work in so many films, but the truth is, only a film about film (which means a film about life) as sophisticated as Fellini's Otto e Mezzo could pull it off. Complicated, chaotic, and visually stunning it seems more correct to say that Fellini orchestrated as opposed to directed this free-wheeling yet tightly controlled look into one person's need to make the film that no one else really wants him to make.
While it lacks graphic violence, warfare, mutilation, genocide, death, or even broken plates this may be the most challenging film I have ever watched. It's like seeing a fight at your best friend's house and not being able to leave the room. You aren't directly involved, and maybe even intrigued, but it sure as hell is uncomfortable. if A Woman Under the Influence made it easier for it's audience to take sides or to truly understand Mabel or Nick's view point this might have been an easier picture to watch. But Cassavetes is not interested in that. Mabel's manic behavior is sympathetic but also taxing on the audience. Nick's rage and frustration is understandable but too much for the viewer to empathize with. We seem to be able to "get" why this couple is the way they are but we can't get under their skin, or, at least it's not that easy. Still, this is not an unrealistic film but one that is hyper realistic. From the shaking hand held camera to dialog that is often free of plot moving intention, this film is the definition of verisimilitude.
Two muscians and an Italian actor who was learning English on set. Only Jim Jarmusch could take three actors like this, the city of New Orleans, and the swamps of Louisiana, Walt Whitman in Italian, and the most pitiful fight scene ever and make a film this exceptional. With lush black and white photography, a rich soundtrack (kudos to both John Lurie and Tom Waits) and a strong three tongued narrative (three distinct parts, three distinct characters, three distinct destinies) this movie has it all without having to do too much. Perhaps what makes it so great is that Jarmusch takes on a relatively tired theme (loneliness) in an innovative and courageous way. This is not a clear cut picture about single dudes who find comfort in each other just as they find true love. And the one character who seems fulfilled in the end may not be safe at all. What I can say for certain is that an out on his ass DJ, an arrogant two bit pimp, and an Italian tourist who literally cannot communicate have a shared sense of loneliness. They may not even be aware of it but Jim Jarmusch makes sure that while there immediate goals may be simple and pragmatic (get out of jail) the real work they have for themselves and each other is not.
War is one of the most flexible and plastic subjects to make a film about. In a war film you can have it all: passion, violence, meditation, heroism, cowardice, love, hate, sex, grief...Some pictures stress a palpable realism (Saving Private Ryan, Gallipoli) and others want to showcase impressionism and surrealism (Apocalypse Now, The King of Hearts). If anything it seems that when a director/writer wants to tackle a war film the trick is in what to emphasize. And that's the beauty of The Thin Red Line. It has no emphasis. Malick's film seems to embrace many facets of what a war film can illustrate and "be about". It is impressionistic and realistic. It has bullets, and blood, and haunting imagery. It has scenes dominated by voice over, and others by conversation. We hear explosions, crickets, screams, singing, and the crunch of rubber boots on earth both scorched and fresh. The portion of the film where the men ascend the hill (when the camera hunkers down with the soldiers in the dirt and the grass and the audience can almost taste the humidity) is worth watching by itself, over and over. But unlike many war pictures there is much more going on than the mere capture of a hill.
Did the Kinks influence the Ramones? Probably. It's not a very big stretch. But how about Leadbelly? Was he a fore father of punk rock? A friend once tried to convince me of this, citing what he said were similarities in "lyrical style", song length, and emotion. Playing the "who created who game" is fun but not always appropriate. Did Okomato's Sword of Doom pave the way for The Wild Bunch, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Taxi Driver and Polanski's MacBeth? Probably not. But at the end of the sixties it seems like something was in the air. While it is unfair to say that The Sword of Doom is merely a black and white exercise in blood and guts, it is correct to say that Okamoto's tale of a psychotic ronin and his victims is a film that uses violence as an element of style. Yes, there are some incredible shots (one of my favorites involves a motley crew of bandits silently stalking a rickshaw in the snow) and some powerful performances but where would this movie be without it's conclusion where Ryunosuke is no longer a character or even a human being but a force of blade, rage, and terror.
Fantasy has the hard task of having to be unreal but still relatable. Too often filmmakers take the short cut of injecting their films with top-heavy CGI and cookie cutter and expected narratives about love/war/family/growing up/blah blah blah. What Cocteau manages to do in his take on the classic fairy tell of Beauty and the Beast is a breath of fresh air. The special effects may be primitive compared to what is available in contemporary times but the Beast's smoking hands and the castle's moving chairs not only allow us to adequately suspend our disbelief but instill a sense of wonderment too. In addition Belle is not a singing or dancing piece of eye candy from the farm land with a smile that won't give up. She's a strong albeit beaten down working girl who can't admire herself because she lacks the sufficient self esteem is to witness her beauty in a recently washed floor but because she has more important things on her mind. In the end we realize that she not only accepts the inner beauty of the beast but she accepts her own independence, that she does not need to live for her father, or her family, or even for the beast, but for herself. It's nice for once to see a movie where the fantasy is the setting and not the inner drive of the characters.
Friedrich Nietzsche said that "the advantage of a bad memory is that one can enjoy the same good things for the first time several times." So, what about the disadvantages of "good memory"? How about memory in the flesh? How about walking memory? Memory that interacts with you? Speaks to you? Memory that loves you when you're too scared to love it back? Often science fiction is in the business of predicting the future and how new technology and discovery will affect humanity. In Solaris there are scientists, and a space ship, and an alien world that causes fantastic happenings upon an orbiting vessel and it's inhabitants. Yet, this discovery is not as practical as liquid water on Mars or as shattering as learning that our creators are gigantic alien beings who now want to kill us in horribly violent ways–nice try Ridley Scott! If anything Tarkovsky's film is about something that is not a new but an ancient problem and by exploring it in the realm of science fiction (of calculating professionals and cold technology) we are allowed a new and fresh perspective. Yes, it would be a dis-service to say that a film as complex and beautiful as Solaris is simply a story about how hard it is "letting go". But when a psychologist on board a space ship discovers his deceased wife walking around (without knowing that she committed suicide on Earth) you know "something" is up.
A period piece. A political thriller. A court room drama. Danton may not be the best film that chronicles "the reign of terror" of the French revolution, but is probably the only one that uses that subject matter to pack in as many genres and as much style into a deceptively simple plot: a power struggle between two historical figures. Danton is suave, charismatic, passionate, and overly optimistic. Robspierre is frigid, half-dead, and dreary. Both men are intellectual and believe in the importance of strategy. However, Danton thinks his personality and legacy alone will save him and make his side victorious while Robspierre seems convinced that there will be no true victory for himself or anyone. Both of them are surrounded by characters that we admire, distrust, pity, and deplore. Without even considering theme, performance, cinematography or any of the other major elements that define films Danton is a movie that the feels like a first hand historical document. We don't know if these individuals said these things, thought these ways, or acted in this fashion. But you can bet it was something damn similar, and that alone make's Adrzej Wadja's film a wonderful experience.
Max Fischer is not an ordinary teenager. His interest is not to fit in, or even to be popular. He wants to be a hero. Herman Bloom may be painfully typical. Middle aged and with graying hair he's on the fast track to a mid-life crisis and possibly divorce. Rosemary Cross is the woman that brings them together and tears them apart–and she's not sure she wants to be around either! Wes Anderson takes the simple schematic of the love triangle and builds a hilarious and thoroughly serious film out of it. With a vintage soundtrack and vintage blazer's Rushmore has the ability to study it's characters deeply without emotional outbursts, ornate speeches, or smashed kitchenware. Like a great J.D. Salinger story we see Max, Herman, and Rosemary act and speak in ways that are passionate but ultimately nuanced. Yes, there is the great sequence where Max and Herman prank one another (with a dangerously mounting intensity in tactics) but the conflict between the three main characters and within themselves is understated and involving, not intense and alienating. Part of that is due to the fact that this film is a comedy and not a drama but much of it has to do with the dialog and the situations both Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson cooked up for the films characters. Two great scenes, past the middle of the film, illustrate this beautifully. One is a meeting between Max and Herman in a hospital elevator, and the other involves Max's "bicycle accident" and his conversation with Rosemary in her late husband's old bedroom. For many who have seen Rushmore, neither scene may have been particularly memorable. But, they showcase why Rushmore is a great film, a film that balances understated acting with outrageous occurrences. A movie life-like enough to not assault our sense of emotion or reality but with the unhinged quality of the fun house mirror we can't stop staring into.