Hello Dear Readers. What follows is a list of my favourite movies, along with a brief description and explanation for why they make my list. When I was considering the criteria by which I would judge my favourite I decided that this was, after all, a subjective assessment, and that therefore I would rank them according to how much they entertained me. I am not a movie critic, nor am I a film-maker; therefore, my subjective assessment of how much I enjoyed them would be my guiding light. This is why what is probably the best film on the list is not in the number one slot (it’s in at number two).
Anyway – summer holidays are just around the corner, and if you’re looking for recommendations on how to amuse yourself you could do worse than to cast your eye over the list. As always, your comments and disputations are welcome…
25: The Birds
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright
Released in 1963
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror thriller, described by critic David Thomson as Hitchcock’s “last unflawed film”, makes the list because it’s just so very odd. Birds start to flock together and attack the residents of a small California town. As is so often the case in really effective horror films, it’s when things that we take completely for granted start behaving weirdly that we get freaked out. I love the film for Tippi Hedren’s performance, the pivotal roles that women play in the story (the male lead, played by Rod Taylor, is surrounded by his mother, his sister, his ex-lover, and his new potential partner), some fabulously unsettling moments (the crows on the climbing frame; the rustling attic) and the ambiguous ending. The film is helped enormously by (then) state-of-the-art special effects (for which it was oscar-nominated) that do a great job of convincing you that the birds are indeed flapping around near the actors. Admittedly the actual bird attacks themselves are bit on the ropy side (they are very clearly stuffed birds on thread swung at the actors’ heads) but nevertheless, when the effects work, they do so brilliantly.If you haven’t seen it – and it’s not one of the Hitchcock films that’s never off the TV, like North By Northwest or Rear Window – seek it out. It’s well worth the effort. I first saw it when I was relatively young, and it is, I think, the first authentic horror film I was ever allowed to watch (my parents taking a fairly dim view of such entertainment). Well…I say ‘my parents’…I suspect it was my Dad who gave me permission, since my mother has a fear of all things that might flap near her (and proper mottephobia/lepidopterophobia) and, as such, this film must rank near the top of her list of ‘films I never ever want to see’.
24: The Untouchables
This glossy classic crime story of Prohibition and the arrest of Al Capone features an all-star cast and one of the last good performances by Kevin Costner. (He was good in this, he was good in 1989’s Field of Dreams, he was good in 2000’s 13 Days, and here’s hoping he doesn’t do terrible things to the new Superman movie in which he plays Jonathan Kent). It is Sean Connery, though, who received a Best Supporting Actor oscar – despite a startlingly peculiar Irish accent. Ironically, the film’s most powerful and memorable scene involves none of the policemen. I refer, of course, to the dinner at which De Niro’s demonic Capone produces a baseball bat and explains that “when a man becomes pre-eminent he is expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms…Enthusiasms.” He then proceeds to demonstrate to his shocked and horrified associates that his ‘enthusiasms’ are for teamwork in which no one – whether on a baseball team or in an organised crime cartel – lets the side down. I like these big period crime films (there is another one a few films ahead), and this one is a particular favourite because it makes a good job of telling a good story. It’s helped no end by having a strong script filled with instantly quotable one-liners (“That’s the Chicago way” “What are you prepared to do about it?” “There goes the next chief of police” “He’s in the car” – I didn’t look those up and I haven’t seen the film in more than a year), stylish and cine-literate visuals (enjoy the homage to The Battleship Potemkin) and a cast of characters about whom it is easy to care.
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Morena Baccarin, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz
Released in 2005
Everyone’s a sucker for a Cinderella story, and the making of this film certainly counts. A continuation of the late, great, much-missed and untimely-cancelled television series Firefly, this is a film born of unwavering fan support, extraordinary determination on the part of the cast and crew of the original TV series (which is not to say that their faith was never tested: Whedon at one point sent an email to one of the producers involved with continuing the story asking “at what point does it stop being resuscitation and start being necrophilia?”) and a refusal to let a TV network suppress something that was actually good. The result is a space-opera that is very difficult to classify. It does, however, have absolutely everything you want to see in a science-fiction film, including nefarious government operatives, brave rebels, fleets of heavily-armed spacecraft (and one unarmed one, the titular Serenity), and a psychic girl with an exceptional line in hand-to-hand combat. Not just directed but written by Joss Whedon (he of The Avengers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame), the film is a sparkling and witty joy from beginning to end. When I first saw it I was, of course, thrilled and delighted with it, but also saddened. Firstly, because I knew it wasn’t going to be enough to resurrect Firefly, however much it deserved to rise from the grave; and secondly, it was so much better than any of the Star Wars prequels had been. Why can’t we get entertainment of this quality more often?
I went to see this film in Bangor Cineplex twice, and both times it was a very strange experience. The first time I went to see it I went with someone who, as a result of a very strict religious upbringing, had never been to the cinema before and who was therefore completely blown away by the whole experience. The second time I went to see it I was in the company of a woman in her 80s who had been a Latin teacher (she had, in fact, been my mother‘s Latin teacher). As you can imagine, these rank right up there as being amongst the more memorable of my trips to the cinema (although they don’t claim the prize: that is awarded to X-Men 2, which I saw in a cinema in Tampico that was flooded to the extent that the front half of the room was full of water which rose all the way to the screen, and the tiered seating in front of us simply disappeared into the depths. It gave a whole new edge to the ending of the film, in which a dam collapses.) The film itself makes use of CGI in the best way – by giving us something to wonder and marvel at, rather than something that intrudes on the story. Seeing ancient Rome with its buildings intact and people thronging its streets was enough to reduce my octogenarian Latin-teaching friend to tears, and to make her wish that she had been able to show those parts of the film to her classes. The film is also notable for featuring the last ever appearance of Oliver Reed, who tragically died during the making of it. If you ask most people, however, what is most memorable about the film, they won’t point you to Reed, or to the CGI, or even to the live tigers against whom Russell Crowe’s gladiator must fight. They will point you to this – and they will be right.
21: L.A. Confidential
This is, again, a glossy period crime movie, but it is considerably darker and more complicated than The Untouchables. Often classed as a ‘neo-noir’, Richard Schickel, in his review for Time magazine, described the look of the film as “the best approximation of the old black-and-white noir look anyone has yet managed on colour stock”, but this is a film that successfully combines style with real substance, with its premise based on corruption – whether of the police, the Hollywood dream or journalistic morals. The film is also noteworthy for its stand-out performances: DeVito gives one of his best (the others being in Get Shorty and Throw Momma From The Train); Spacey is compulsively watchable as a cop losing his soul and seeing one last shot at redemption; Crowe has never been better than as the blunt instrument learning lessons in every kind of vulnerability that matters; and Kim Basinger won a Best Supporting Actress oscar for her performance as a prostitute whose ‘unique selling point’ is that she looks notably like Veronica Lake. (Basinger’s oscar was one of two won by the film, and one of nine for which the film was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director). But the real triumph of the film is in its emphasis not on violence (although there are some very violent moments) or even crime but instead on psychology: we begin the film with a group of stock characters who are all allowed to expand and become something more than that. This is perhaps mostly clearly seen in Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, who starts out prudish and gets much tougher, and eventually winds up cynical enough to survive and prosper in a new police force that he can, perhaps, make a little better than its predecessor.
20: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Directed by Robert Hamer
Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood
Released in 1949
How black do you take your comedy? This is an hilarious tale of serial killing, as told by a man in his cell awaiting execution the following morning. After the D’Ascoyne family disinherit his mother for ‘marrying beneath her station’ and then refuse her final request that she be buried in the family crypt, young Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) decides that the D’Ascoyne line must end, which will avenge his dead mother and, incidentally, install him as the new Duke of Chalfont. And so Mazzini sets his sights on Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness); Henry D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness); Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness); Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness); General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness); Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness); Ethelred D’Ascoyne, Duke of Chalfont (Alec Guinness); and finally Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness). Mazzini, the new Duke of Chalfont, is then tried in the House of Lords and found guilty of a murder which, ironically, he didn’t actually commit. The film is a sly and witty comedy of manners, astonishingly dark, wickedly funny, and – in 2011 – digitally restored and available on DVD. If you haven’t seen it before, why not give it a whirl?
19: Red Dragon
And so to the not-so-funny side of serial killing. This prequel to The Silence of the Lambs might be considered a remake of Manhunter, with the great advantage of casting Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector (Manhunter, you remember, had Brian Cox in the role), but it features my favourite of all Ralph Fiennes’ performances. He has – in my eyes – never been better than he is here as the soft-spoken, cleft-palletted Francis Dolarhyde. He is the Red Dragon of the title, the man the media refer to as the ‘Tooth Fairy’ for his habit of leaving bite marks on his victims, a man deformed under the weight of his tattoo of William Blake’s ‘Red Dragon’. As FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) says: “He’s not a monster. He’s a man with a monster on his back.” Seeing Dolarhyde’s struggle to be a man rather than a monster, knowing he was made, not born, that way, we come, somehow, to sympathise with him. In the background, of course, there lurks Hannibal, locked away after Graham identifies him as the cannibal of Baltimore (the beginning of the film, during which Hannibal is still loose, is one of the film’s real guilty pleasures) but still pulling strings, and attempting to set Dolarhyde and Graham on a collision course… The film, refreshingly, doesn’t depend on blood ‘n’ guts for its chills. It’s all about atmosphere. Even though this is, by my reckoning, one of the most violent films on this list, it, like the others, never seems to be gratuitous: if it can cut away, it does. Besides, Rattner knows that inference is a far more useful tool than explicitness, and that a tale of cat and mouse is far more interesting when half the time you can’t see the cat…
18: Let The Right One In
The first foreign-language film on the list, and the only out-and-out unambiguous horror, this 2008 Swedish adaptation of a Swedish novel of the same name is, oddly enough, profoundly moving. The story of a pre-adolescent boy, bullied at school, who strikes up a friendship with what he believes to be the straightforward ‘girl next door’ is at its heart a very simple one. But the ‘girl next door’ is a 200-year-old vampire, lonely in her own way, and the logistics of her existence are not so much frightening as simply tragic. The two young leads are extraordinary, and scenes that in another film could have been turned into exercises in pointless violence – the opening of the hospital blinds, the bullies in the swimming pool – are here markedly restrained, drawing more power from a subdued melancholia than any kind of adrenalised shockery. The scene that haunts me, though, is the scene in which the boy asks the vampire what happens when she enters without being invited. Eventually she shows him, after he refuses to take no for an answer, and she stands in his hallway with blood beginning to pour from her eyes, her ears, her nose. Utterly horrified by what he has done, the boy screams an invitation to her and wraps her in his arms. I wonder if his horror at what has happened is not just at Eli’s bleeding but at his own bullying: for a moment, he has become what he hates and fears most in the world. Compared to that, what possible fear could a vampire hold for him? This is ultimately a film about acceptance and rejection; isolation and family; friendship and separation. It’s an absolute masterpiece.
The only Western on my list, this features an absolutely scene-stealing turn from Val Kilmer. This was his last stand-out performance for more than a decade (in fairness, he did his best in Heat but he was sharing screen time with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro) until he found his feet again in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005. In Tombstone he plays Doc Holliday, a dentist-turned-crackshot dying of TB who claims all the best lines in the movie. Sauntering as best he can while coughing his lungs up, his droll asides are a welcome counterpart to Virgil’s strait-lacedness and Morgan’s naivity. Kurt Russell, meanwhile, plays Wyatt Earp as though he is a direct ancestor of Snake Plissken, and is compulsively watchable (something of a signature trait: he was literally the only watchable thing about Tarantino’s ghastly Death Proof, for instance). That is not to say that the film is without its flaws: it plays very fast and loose with the facts, and however magnificent their moustaches the male leads don’t quite seem to be genuine characters from the 1880s. To say nothing of the women, who are unbelievably liberated for their time (although I must confess I find the film more enjoyable as a result). So it’s not a brilliant Western. It’s certainly not a brilliant historical drama. But my heavens it is an entertaining ride, and if you are looking for a great big popcorn movie with a better script than you had any right to expect then you could do far worse. Also, look out for a great cameo turn from Billy Bob Thornton.
16: Jurassic Park
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Wayne Knight
Released in 1993
Two things. First of all, this has the best wonder-inducing reveal of any film I am aware of. I refer, of course, to the scene when, having arrived at the island, the paleontologists are riding in jeeps from the helipad, through the park, to the main building. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), a paleobotanist, realises the leaf she’s holding is extinct. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) has more pressing concerns, and forcibly lifts Ellie’s head up to look out the window. And that is when we see the dinosaurs, the perfection of whose CGI appearance still stands up today nearly 20 years later. Everyone, but everyone, seeing that scene for the first time feels like a small kid again. Of course, part of the brilliance of the screenplay is that when the lawyer sees the animals his reaction is not ‘wow’ but ‘we’re going to be rich’. It’s hard not to love the screenwriter a little bit for that. The other thing to mention is that although there are other films on this list that feature scary ‘creature moments’ (check out the next two entries) none of them, in my estimation, compares to the sheer heart-pounding suspense of the raptors in the kitchen. Seriously. I don’t care how old, ugly or scary you yourself might be, that scene is always going to get you. And that’s because it takes a very, very old fear – helpless humans (helpless kids!) being hunted – and turns it up to 11 by having the hunters be unstoppable killing machines that are smart and can learn. It is also worth mentioning that there are 3 actors vying for the title of ‘coolest character’ – Jeff Goldblum at his twitchy best, Samuel L. Jackson as one competent hombre, and Bob Peck as the gamekeeper Muldoon, who has the best introductory line of any character: “The raptors. They should all be destroyed.” He also has the best exit line: “clever girl”. There is literally nothing to dislike about this film.
15: Pan’s Labyrinth
The second foreign-language film on the list is also one of the most visually stunning. It is not a children’s film. It may well be a dark fairy tale populated with fantastic creatures, telling the story of a little girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who may be the long-lost princess of a subterranean kingdom and who must complete three tasks to prove herself worthy of returning – but it is not a children’s film. It is, however, “the Citizen Kane of fantasy film”, as Mark Kermode puts it, and it remains one of the most visually inventive and astonishing films I have ever seen. I love del Toro’s creatures (in the entry for Jurassic Park I talked about wonder: the same point could be applied to the Elemental in del Toro’s Hellboy II) and here both the Faun, and the monstrous Pale Man, remain indelibly imprinted long after you have left the cinema or turned off the DVD. But it is also worth noting that this is not ‘just’ a fantasy film. It is set in Spain in 1944, and features as its primary antagonist Ofelia’s step-father, a Facist officer of Franco’s army hunting rebels in the hills. The film blends its horrors – the fantastical and the familial, the miraculous and the martial – seamlessly in the person of Ofelia, who slips between worlds, attempting to navigate both labyrinths – the Faun’s, and the family’s. Her step-father is every bit as much a monster as anything she finds in the underworld, and the film refuses to offer him any opportunity to reveal any humanity. The fact that he remains so utterly convincing as a character is troubling. It is not a flaw with the film. It is a flaw with the man, and the political system which facilitates his monstrousness. The ending to the film, for all that it might seem in retrospect to have been inevitable, is unquestionably the right ending. Perhaps that is why it stays with you.
I swithered long and hard over whether to put forward as my choice Alien or Aliens. The 1979 original is a classic, no doubt about it, and a masterpiece of claustrophobic horror. In the end I opted for the sequel because it’s simply a better roller-coaster ride. “This time it’s war”, says the tagline, and Cameron is nothing if not a master of big action. The director of the first two Terminator films (i.e. the good ones), True Lies, Avatar and others (including one to appear later on this list) excels because before he blows anything major up (and there are few directors who blow things up with greater aplomb) he first makes you care about the characters standing at the foreground of the explosion. In Aliens, once the action gets going it just doesn’t stop, to the extent that this is an exhausting, relentless film that leaves you wrung out by the end of it. It’s a film you don’t just see, you experience. I also like it because it has one of the few really clear-sighted and sensible conversations in a big-budget science-fiction film. After the massacre of most of the Marines, the survivors decide that instead of assaulting the facility and trying the same thing again – a convention in these types of films – they will return to the command ship and nuke the facility from orbit. Of course, things don’t quite work out that way, but I applaud the sentiment. Aliens also brought us one of the great climactic fights of cinema: in the red corner, the Alien Queen; in the blue corner, Ripley, in a powered exoskeleton. Ladies, the floor is yours.
13: A Bridge Too Far
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Starring Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximillian Schell, Liv Ullmann
Released in 1977
Right. You see that list of actors? Take another look. It’s pretty much everybody. And even if some of them perform their roles better than others – Dirk Bogarde is particularly memorable as a somewhat slimy General Browning, while the less said about Gene Hackman’s ‘Polish’ accent the better – there is no denying that it is essentially unbeatable as an ensemble cast. But more than that, it is a justifiable ensemble. The story of Operation MARKET GARDEN is an exceedingly large and complex one, with multiple individuals in multiple locations. Attenborough’s triumph was to succeed in casting instantly recognisable stars in key positions so that you could remember who was doing what where. The film is also a triumph of scale. The mechanised armies of WW2 are unlikely to be matched in size ever again, and so what this film attempts – and mostly succeeds in doing – is to show what an enormous undertaking the war really was. The vast assemblies of tanks, aircraft, guns and gliders – including a real drop of 1,000 parachutists – make for a film that is genuinely epic in scope. The fact that it is about one of the great Allied defeats of the war makes the film’s existence all the more remarkable, and it manages – far more than something like Saving Private Ryan – to make brave and bitter points about the tragedies of failure.
12: The Shawshank Redemption
This film is consistently voted the best film – or at least the most popular – ever made. I like it a great deal (though obviously not enough to put it at the top of this list), although I do think it’s five minutes too long (it should finish on the bus!) and, in the words of the great Mayo & Kermode, “there’s an awful lot of Shawshank before you get to the Redemption”. I love it for its very traditional style and structure (it has, after all, Morgan Freeman not just acting in the film but narrating it – and really, if you’re going to have a narrator, why would you have anyone other than Morgan Freeman?) and for its perfectly-pitched trajectory, through the gruesomeness of the prison experience, through that infamous cloacal transition, to the purifying rainstorm. It also has tremendously satisfying narrative arcs for the other characters – notably those played by Freeman, Gunton and Brown. It’s also worth pointing out that this is a confident period piece, being set in Maine in (initially) 1947 and moving smoothly to 1965, allowing Red (Freeman), in narration, to point out just how little changes ‘inside’. Andy (Tim Robbins) remains constant in his belief that “hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing”, and it is his triumph of hope that gives the film its soul. Darabont, who directed this adapted Stephen King novella, went on to direct an adaptation of King’s The Green Mile – another prison drama, albeit one with more obviously supernatural elements – and then The Mist, again originally by King, which is again a meditation on hope, though one which more obviously contrasts it with despair. But this first shot remains his best, and retains its power to affect and move.
11. A Bug’s Life
I know there will be some of you out there howling in rage that my Pixar choice is not one of the Toy Story films (which I acknowledge to be cinema’s only perfect trilogy), or Wall.E, or Monsters Inc. …but this remains my choice because to me it is the funniest of the bunch. Admittedly it’s not very sophisticated humour – the belching contest between the woodlice remains a memorable moment – and some of the one-liners are not exactly cutting-edge (one glow-worm to another: “Hey! Turn your butt off!”), but you know what? There is a time and a place for such silliness, and this facilitates it. It’s helped, of course, by lifting large elements of its plot from Seven Samurai (which in turn inspired The Magnificent Seven), but unlike those two classics the seven saviours in this story are not, as the beleaguered ants believe, warrior bugs but instead unemployed circus acts. The voice acting is top-notch (Spacey is excellent as the evil grasshopper Hopper, while David Hyde Pierce, better known as Niles in Frasier, is pitch-perfect as a fastidious stick insect) and the computer graphics are as sophisticated as they need to be. Pixar would go on to ever-more-impressive visuals (the fur in Monsters Inc., the water in Finding Nemo) but on this occasion they are sufficient to the task – which means they won’t date. Finally, mention must be made of John Ratzenberger’s manic turn as circus ringleader P.T. Flea, who delivers his lines with a verve and panache that renders him completely irresistable. It’s a perfect film for after a dull, dreary day, and will lighten even Aberdonian fog and gloom.
10: The Abyss (Special Edition)
This is an odd one, in that the special edition of the movie makes it essentially a different film, restoring an entire subplot, significantly altering the ending and adding 30 minutes to the running time. The altered ending, incidentally, is the reason why this version is on the list. It makes a lot more sense. But more to the point, this is a film I have liked for a long time, in both versions, because it is, first and foremost, a really good yarn. When an American missile sub sinks at sea, the US decides that the fastest way to reach the boat and secure its nuclear weapons is to send an experimental civilian undersea oil-drilling rig, the Deep Core, to the site, along with a SEAL time to take care of the warheads. However, when the Deep Core crew get there, they find they are not the first on the scene. Deep-water ‘aliens’ – not extra-terrestrial but non-terrestrial – are already there, and, having been observing escalating tensions between the US and the USSR, have decided that the time has come to act before one or other nation decides to initiate a war that will harm everyone – including those who live at the bottom of the abyss. This is, again, a James Cameron film, and his fascination with the deep sea shines in every frame. He coaxes fantastic performances from the entire cast – Michael Biehn is particularly noteworthy as the SEAL Team leader slowly succumbing to psychosis – but the most remarkable performance comes from the rat, which really does breathe the oxygenated liquid. It’s well worth seeking out this version on DVD (it’s never shown on TV) and relaxing into the 2hr 50min runing time.
09: The Lives of Others
This German cold-war thriller manages to be a moving human drama, a critique of systems of oppression, a meditation on the liberating power of art, and a taut, tense tale of repression, revelation and redemption. I was told about it by my brother (who studies German), who advised me to borrow the DVD and make the time to watch it. I am very glad I did. It is a film about human dignity – what it costs, what it’s worth, who has it, who’s willing to sacrifice it, how it can be taken away, and how it can be reclaimed. It is, primarily, the story of two men: an East German playwright, played by Sebastian Koch, who is provoked into writing an article for Der Spiegel on the concealment of suicide statistics in East Germany; and the Stasi officer, played by Ulrich Mühe, assigned to watch him by bugging his apartment and his phones. Over the course of the film, the officer comes to understand that the system for which he works is corrupt, indefensibly so, and for perhaps the first time in his life he is forced to question his own position within that system. It is a film about morals and ethics, and it demonstrates that the consequences of moral failing can be devastating, just as the triumphs of moral rectitude can be, eventually, worth the suffering incurred in attaining them. Thomas Thiene is splendidly malignant as the odious Minister for Culture, while Volkmar Klienert, as the black-listed playwright Albert Jerska, strikes all the right notes as a tragic, brittle figure dying alone in the dark outside the meagre warmth of the officially-sanctioned theatre campfire.
08: Ice Cold in Alex
My favourite war movie, Ice Cold in Alex works in part because it has a very small cast fighting for survival in a very confined space – an Austin K2 ambulance affectionately nicknamed ‘Katy’. Unlike most war movies, the primary enemy isn’t ‘the other side’ – its the environment, the merciless North African desert. The crew of the ambulence must escape from Tobruk, now fallen to the Nazis, to Alexandria, ‘Alex’, where the exhausted Captain Anson (John Mills) has promised everyone an ice-cold lager. Along the way they pick up a South African who may not be all he seems, and run into minefields, quicksand and the Afrika Korps. In some respects, though, these are mere footnotes to one of the most agonising scenes in cinema. After ‘Katy’ fails to make her way over a sand dune under her own power, the crew reverse it up by putting it in gear, switching off the engine and using the hand crank to turn the wheels so achingly slowly that they don’t disturb the loose sand over which they are moving. Just as they near the top of the berm the handbrake slips and Katy careers back down the hill so laboriously climbed. Watching this you too could almost weep with frustration, and it is at that moment that MSM Pugh (played by the wonderful Harry Andrews) demonstrates why he is probably the most fortitudinous character in any of the films on this list. He assesses the situation, gives the person responsible for the handbrake a hug, and simply says “Right! Who’s up for some exercise?” The other thing perhaps worth mentioning is that I have a signed photograph of Sylvia Syms as she appears in this film, which is partly a reflection of how much I like the movie, and partly a reflection of how much I like how she appears in it…
07: Some Like It Hot
Voted the greatest American comedy of all time by the American Film Institute, this cross-dressing screwball comedy is the highest-ranking comedy on my list and a film that is simply a joy from beginning to end. It is also – let us not beat about the bush (I nearly typed ‘bust’ there, which should tell you where this sentence is headed) – about sex, because it features Marilyn Monroe at simultaneously her most innocent and her most provocative, reducing every man around her to helpless wreckage. You may think the film is about gangsters, about Lemmon and Curtis witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, dressing up in drag and joining an all-girls jazz band to escape the mob – but it isn’t, not really. That’s simply a way to enable Billy Wilder to pour Monroe into the most eyebrow-raising dress since Jessica Rabbit’s and then watch the ensuing chaos. Curtis seduces Monroe by pretending to be a millionaire (adopting Cary Grant’s voice in the process, prompting Lemmon to do his own impersonation while saying “Nobody talks like that!”), Monroe seduces Curtis by pretending not to be interested in his notional money, and Lemmon manages to seduce an actual millionaire called Osgood Fielding the Third (who gets the best closing line of any film, ever). Meanwhile, the mob have managed to see through the boys’ disguises, and an additional level of mayhem ensues. The film has as near to a perfect script as you are ever likely to encounter, it is acted, directed and filmed with meticulous craftsmanship and artistry, and I have loved it since I was 8 years old.
06: Apollo 13
“Houston we have a problem.” I went to see this film with my family, knowing nothing about it other than it was based on a true story and that, somehow, the actors playing astronauts really were weightless when they appeared to be. What followed was, I think, the single most enthralling trip to the cinema my family ever managed. I should explain that family trips to the cinema were rare in our household – the only other ones I can remember for sure that had all 5 us at the same screening were Free Willy, The Sum of All Fears, and The Return of the King – and so they were inevitably special events. What makes Apollo 13 unusual is that while on paper it should have only appealed to my brother, my father and I (my sister and mother not being particularly interested in science or engineering -based films), somehow Apollo 13 managed to grip all of us. For me, it was the story of the guys on the ground that captivated me. The indomitable Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), with his effortless leadership and uncompromising attitude (“We’ve never lost an American in space and we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”) was clearly the authority figure who really mattered, but my favourite relationship in the film is the one forged between Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the astronaut who was not allowed on the mission in case he developed measles (he didn’t), and John Aaron (Loren Dean), who together developed the procedure that enabled the astronauts to restore power to their crippled spacecraft and thus make it home alive. In my family, everyone took something away from the film, and everyone enjoyed it. In my book, that’s a true family film.
05: The Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter is not immoral. He is amoral. He has no concept of morality. Things he does are monstrous because he is a monster, not a man: if he were a man they would be unspeakable. The Silence of the Lambs – the most recent of the three films in Academy history to win the ‘Big 5′ oscars – knows this. Wisely, Anthony Hopkins’ creation is given less than 17 minutes of screentime. Any more and he would be completely overwhelming. Instead, we are treated to an elegant sufficiency – a situation with which Lecter would himself no doubt approve. Fastidious, polite, courteous, logical, brilliant like a diamond (all facets and reflections) and intelligent, Lecter is witty, droll and urbane. Perfect company, in fact, were it not for his other…proclivities. In this film Lecter assists rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she attempts to identify and apprehend another serial killer, ‘Buffalo Bill’ (Ted Levine). Although we are not allowed to forget Lecter’s inhumanity, his evil, we do come to respect him and, yes, even to like him. The story is told that when the film received its theatrical release in Wales, Anthony Hopkins would sneak into showings and sit at the back to observe the audience’s reaction. If, however, he caught anyone talking, he would walk over to where they were sitting and, in character, explain that he would “esteem it a small courtesy if you would be so kind as to refrain from talking. Otherwise I will, most regrettably, be forced to eat your tongue.” One can only imagine the kind of havoc this would have wrought. It’s hard not to be amused by it, though.
04: The Dark Knight
The writing had been on the wall for a while. First came X-Men, which began with a scene in a concentration camp but took it seriously and not exploitatively. Then came Nolan’s first take on the Batman mythos in 2005’s Batman Begins, which similarly took itself seriously and, in its use of nightmare imagery, announced that it was more than simply another big dumb action movie for children. But it was Nolan’s sequel that demonstrated that the superhero genre had come of age. The Dark Knight was about something. It examined the ideas of identity (a Nolan favourite – see also Memento and Inception), responsibility, terror, justice and social morality – the brownian motion of accountability by which we keep ourselves roughly aligned in how we view criminality. The Dark Knight boasted all this, but it also featured an astonishing villain in Heath Ledger’s Joker. He isn’t mad. He isn’t insane. He simply knows that to beat society all you have to do is refuse to acknowledge its mores. So he isn’t motivated by money, and he isn’t motivated by a need for any kind of social interaction. All he wants is to take the wheels off the wagon simply to see what will happen when he does. Standing against him is a Batman we are no longer sure is sophisticated enough in his thinking to stop him, and a district attorney who may succumb to the temptation to believe that in this instance yes, the ends do justify the means. A dark parable, perhaps, for the War on Terror? Whether it is or not, it remains true that this is a comic book movie that has, at last, made the genre grow up.
03: Raiders of the Lost Ark
I was partially introduced to this film when I was quite small. I say ‘partially’ because it was many years before I was allowed to watch the ending (I recall vividly not being allowed to see the ending when it was on one Saturday night, and then hunting down various people I thought might have been watching in church the next morning and getting them to explain it to me. There were a number of films my parents took this approach to, which means that for me there is a strange kind of category blending in which ‘cinema’ is inextricably linked to ‘oral history’). Eventually, of course, I was able to see the whole thing, and what an experience it is. Ford, as Indiana Jones, somehow manages to capture the essence of cool for the second time in his career (no one who sees Star Wars comes out of it thinking ‘meh’ about Han Solo) but Karen Allen’s feisty Marion proves that the girls in shameless matinee crowd-pleasers could also bring a level of hard-drinking, smart and funny characterisation to the party. Of course, that all went horribly wrong in the sequel (as did so much else) but in this film ‘the girl’ is an equal counterpart to ‘the hero’. In a film chocked full of memorable sequences (the Well of Souls, the fight at the aeroplane, the truck chase), memorable lines (“Didn’t you ever go to Sunday School?” “Snakes…why’d it have to be snakes?” “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage” “I don’t know – I’m just making this up as I go!”) and memorable outfits (that whip! That hat!) it is, in fact, impossible to pick an individual moment that stands out. The whole thing is simply uniformly excellent.
02: Taxi Driver
This is the only film to date that, after watching it for the first time, I immediately put the DVD back to the start and watched the whole thing again. It is Scorscese’s best film. It is De Niro’s best film. It’s a film about loneliness, and about how destructive it can be to the soul. It’s a film about how a man can fall into psychosis and about how he can be unable to save himself. Travis Bickle (De Niro) wants some kind of intimate connection, but he does not understand intimacy. When he persuades Betsy (Shepherd) to go on a date with him, he takes her to a pornographic cinema. The movie they see (before Betsy walks out) is “Kärlekens Språk” (‘The Language of Love’), a film which excited some controversy because it was billed as a sex education film rather than a pornographic one, and arguments were made for it being both those things. That Bickle takes his date to see may represent a terrible misjudgement on his part, but it is not, arguably, as sleazy a gesture as some have asserted. He attempts to ‘save’ a 12-year-old prostitute Iris (Foster), and in the end he decides to ‘clean up the city’. When an attempt to assassinate a political candidate fails (if it had been successful, the press would surely have vilified him) he goes after Iris’s pimp (Keitel) and, in bloody execution, ends him. For this act of ‘vigilante heroism’ the press lionise him. At the end of the film we see him looking anxiously into the rear mirror of his taxi. What does he see, and how far behind him is it?
01: The Hunt for Red October
My favourite film. It has been since I first saw it, aged (I think) 7. To this day I love the cleverness of the plot (significantly streamlined from that in the book, but an absolute masterclass in how to perform that kind of heavy cutting), the sheer scale of the undertaking (this was before CGI, so that impressive shot at the beginning showing the sheer size of Red October? Yeah, they actually built a full-scale replica of the 600′ upper hull) and the series of tense set-pieces that bleed seamlessly into one another. We are completely convinced by the characters – the oleaginous political officer played by Peter Firth, the gruff captain Mancuso played by Glenn, the analyst (literally) out of his depth played by Baldwin, and finally, the inscrutable Captain Marko Ramius, played to perfection and with a dry wit by Sean Connery. The help provided by the US Navy made the film possible, and even today, more than 20 years later, the technology on display looks impressively sophisticated. Even though the Macguffin for the plot – a near-silent propulsion system that gives Red October a perfect ‘first-strike’ capability – is a technological one, it is the characters that we really care about, particularly since Ryan (Baldwin) is a CIA analyst who puts himself in the peculiar position of opposing both the American and Russian navies in trying to save Ramius’s life. We find ourselves rooting for people, even though they may be constrained by circumstances, and in their struggles against machines – not least of which is the apparatus of the State – they provide the human drama that makes this film so engrossing.
Some interesting statistics provoked by this list
So, there you have my list of my favourite films. If we take a look at the actors, directors, and years, we can begin to put numbers on the extent to which things are popular. (Numbers in brackets are the positions of the films on the list).
1940s: 1 (#20)
1950s: 2 (#07, #08)
1960s: 1 (#25)
1970s: 2 (#02, #13)
1980s: 3 (#03, #14, #24)
1990s: 9 (#01, #05, #06, #10, #11, #12, #16, #17, #21)
2000s: 7 (#04, #09, #15, #18, #19, #22, #23)
U: #11; #07
PG: #20; #16; #06; #03; #01
15: #25; #24; #23; #22; #19; #18; #17; #15; #13; #12; #10; #09; #08
18: #21; #14; #05; #02
Actors (only those with multiple appearances on the list will be counted):
Two appearances: Michael Caine (#04, #13); Russell Crowe (#21, #22); Jodie Foster (#02, #05); Morgan Freeman (#04, #12); Scott Glenn (#01, #05), Ed Harris (#06, #10); Harvey Keitel (#02; #19); Sam Neill (#01, #16); Robert De Niro (#02, #24); Kevin Spacey (#11, #21)
Three Appearances: Michael Biehn (#10, #14, #17); Sean Connery (#01, #13, #24); Anthony Hopkins (#05, #13, #19); Bill Paxton (#06, #14, #17)
Finally, only two directors appear more than once. James Cameron is responsible for both The Abyss and Aliens (#10 & #14); while Steven Spielberg claims both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park (#03 & #16).