Day Five. The top 20. My desert island films. I could watch pretty much any of these films any time. The reasons for their appeal vary; I’ll get into that a little bit. But these are the ones that, for whatever reason, stir my spaghetti. Okay, enough prerequisite preamble. Let’s just do this!
20. The Thing (1982, John Carpenter) – I remember quite vividly watching The Thing for the first time late at night on ITV. I’d heard of it, of course, but it’d taken me some time to get to. I think I’d even played the video game version before seeing the movie. That Xbox experience did not prepare me in the least. Sure, the peerless physical effects work was and is phenomenal, but what I remember from that first viewing is the tension. Fingers-in-the-armrest gripped. And I remember howling at the screen whenever a contractually-obliged advert break tore me out of the film. The best of the Carpenter / Russell team-ups with a perfectly judged ending that modern Hollywood would probably never allow.
19. Lost In Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola) – I know this is a film that divides audiences, and several friends of mine openly have no time for it whatsoever. I can respect their opinion, but I can’t agree with it, especially when people say that nothing happens. Every scene is heavy with detail, inferral, potential. Occasionally I wonder if they might be right, and I doubt how I feel about the film. Then I watch it and I’m swept away again. Lost In Translation is perfectly judged; there’s no ‘almost’ about this romance; just look at Bill Murray’s body language when he finally walks away from Scarlett Johansson. He looks like he could vault buildings. Wouldn’t anyone?
18. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson) – I’ll be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of There Will Be Blood when I saw it on release. Paul Thomas Anderson’s past successes meant my attendance was a prerequisite, and my hopes were high. I felt like it had met those expectations – and surpassed them – but what was it? In spite of its lengthy running time, I’ve given myself plenty of opportunities to return to the film. Daniel Day Lewis’ performance is astounding, but every element works in what feels like a genuine modern masterpiece. If Magnolia was Anderson’s ode to Robert Altman, then There Will Be Blood is his love letter to Stanley Kubrick, while very much remaining its own squealing beast.
17. The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) – Even Raymond Chandler admitted, push come to shove, that he couldn’t entirely unravel the plot machinations of his novel upon which The Big Sleep is based. Keeping track of all these details is fun in and of itself, of course, but the primary joys of Howard Hawks’ film noir are the two actors pictured above. Humphrey Bogart is his usual laconic self, only more so, while Lauren Bacall is every bit his equal. The whole movie is a joy, but it crackles with extra fire whenever the two of them share the screen.
16. The Night Of The Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton) – One of the greatest tragedies of American cinema is that Charles Laughton was so disheartened by the initial reception to The Night Of The Hunter that he never directed another film. It has since been reappraised as a masterpiece. One of the finest American films ever made. And we’re left to wonder what incredible body of work we’ve been denied. What he might’ve made next…? Setting such “what ifs” aside, we do have The Night Of The Hunter, as bewitching a piece of Southern Gothic storytelling as I’ve ever seen. Robert Mitchum… The trip down the river… Everything. A sick little fairy tale.
15. Under The Skin (2014, Jonathan Glazer) – Okay, even by the standards of Empire’s top 301 list, this may seem a bit soon, a bit reactionary for such a high placing… But sometimes you see a film and you just know it’s going to remain important and dear to you. Under The Skin seeped into me. Glazer’s slow, deliberate, hauntingly tense depiction of a stranger among us works to its own dreaded metronome, slowing down the viewer, asking us to search for familiarity. Scarlett Johannson’s performance is deceptively nuanced, Mica Levi’s score the perfect disarming accompaniment. It absolutely isn’t for everyone, and many will feel bored, confused or, ironically, totally alienated. But doesn’t that just make it even more precious to those of us who really felt it under our skin? A cult classic in the making. I cannot wait to see it again.
14. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, David Lynch) – Once again I feel that I have to play devil’s advocate. Booed at Cannes…Panned on release… Generally considered a failure. Not in my book. But then my attachment to this film is strangely personal. I first saw it when I was too young to really understand what it was. I was about 13 or 14. I hadn’t seen the TV show at all. And here was this sinister, secret world. It felt as though I was seeing the truth about something, but prepared and presented in some foreign tongue. There was a code I wasn’t privy to. I loved that feeling of dangerous mystery.
Now, having seen it many times, I love it for all its narrative dead-ends and implied horrors. Instead of being infuriating, these unanswered questions only add to the tone of a world outside of our control. You might reach the tips of your fingers out to brush those Douglas fir trees, but there’s always the risk that something will pull you into the forest. For that intoxicating feeling, Fire Walk With Me is an unsung masterpiece.
13. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, Joel Coen) – Not the most obvious Coen Brothers choice, maybe, but certainly my favourite of theirs. Although not at first. Truth be told when I first saw The Man Who Wasn’t There I wasn’t bowled over by it; it was fine, nothing more. But it kept drawing me back… The more I saw it, the more I saw in it. It grew funnier and funnier, the patterns of dialogue and recurring visual motifs started to appear to me until it all clicked together like a symphony. This tale of a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner is like some philosophical gag, a little bleak, heavily cynical, but perfectly pitched, and yet another example of why Roger Deakins can shoot a film like no-one else alive today.
12. The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy) – The Wicker Man is a very particular curiosity. The pinnacle of a brief run of ‘folk-horror’ films to come out of Britain in the late 60’s/early 70’s, even this reductive moniker isn’t enough to encompass it’s beguiling multiple identities. There’s musical numbers, a great deal of comedy, not to mention the central mystery – the disappearance of a local girl on a remote Scottish island – and the inevitable sting in the tale. Edward Woodward is great as the put-upon Sergeant Howie, while Christopher Lee, a man whose career is not short on notable performances, has never been better. Make an appointment with it.
11. Audition (1999, Takashi Miike) – I really didn’t like Audition when I first saw it. It bored me, then it disgusted me, then it was over. I spoke poorly of it. …But then I wanted to watch it again. And again. Like an itch you can’t help but scratch I found myself summarily returning to this puzzle-box of a film, and I quickly did a complete 180 on it. Easily one of the greatest horror films ever made, and proof if any were needed that Takashi Miike is one of the most accomplished directors in the world, Audition works like a trap, luring the viewer in with expectations of horror, wrong-footing them with a protracted romantic drama, while all the time subtly manipulating the film’s flexible reality until all hell breaks loose in the stunning surreal downfall of the last half hour. The final brutality is earned and continues to take my breath away. Beautifully dark, endlessly menacing. I can only encourage persistence with this deliberate masterpiece. It’d be in the top 10 if it wasn’t for…
10. Dazed And Confused (1993, Richard Linklater) – If this list were to make personal influence more accountable than any other factor, then Dazed And Confused would enjoy even greater success, along with Fire Walk With Me. Which is not to say I’m a pothead or Wooderson-esque prowler looking to relive my glory days, but rather that this is another of those movies that I encountered while staying up late at an impressionable age. Linklater’s joyous nostalgia trip to the last day of school in a Texan town in ’76 struck a chord with me like few other films, making me envious of a time and a place I’ve never known.
In my teens I knew I wanted to write, and earnestly put together a story similar to this one. However, I got to a point about two-thirds of the way through where I simply got stuck. It was then that I realised why; I was writing Dazed And Confused, and the reason I didn’t know what happened next was because I’d missed the end of the film. So deeply had what I’d seen settled that I wanted to live in its world completely, even if that meant misguidedly plagarsing it. I’ve since seen the whole movie many, many times over. It rings with truth the way other ‘high school’ movies fail to, putting gross-out comedies like American Pie to ridiculous shame. My go-to feel good experience, now and for the foreseeable future.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) – My Why I Love… essay on 2001: A Space Odyssey goes into my personal history with the film, charting the ways and rituals with which I came to know the film and now habitually return to it. I suppose that leaves this entry to reiterate the great things about this movie that garner it near-ubiquitous praise. The astonishing synergy of sound and visuals, the perfection of so many of those images; the effects work that holds up as readily believable some 40+ years later. The sense that here ideas about journeys into time and space were not reproachable nerdy fantasies, but serious ideas with boundless possibilities. That the only boundaries are the limits of what we can imagine might be there waiting for us.
8. Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth) – Again, I don’t care if this seems too soon for such a recklessly high placing. I’d put money on the idea that if I make a list like this ten years from now Upstream Color will still be holding such esteem with me. It’s all-too-rare that a film not only exceeds expectations, but vaults so far over them that you’re left a little flabbergasted. Shane Carruth eschews traditional exposition, instead giving the viewer everything they need visually, asking the viewer to participate, boldly allowing film as a medium to convey his intent. It works so well, not just for his expertise at getting his ideas across, but because it’s all anchored in palpable human emotion. Frustration, love, loss, fear, need. Upstream Color taps vital responses and makes them resonate. A graceful swirl of a film.
7. Harikiri (1962, Masaki Kobayashi) – Occasionally (very occasionally) a film will just floor you. That happened to me with Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (known as Seppuku in its native Japan, but globally more often recognised by the name I’m going with here). I’d seen Takashi Miike’s faithful remake already, a good film in its own right, so had little reason to believe Kobayashi’s film would be able to surprise me. After all, I knew the story beats, right?
Nevertheless, the original Harakiri was a jaw-to-the-floor experience. While the first half hour seems comparatively inauspicious, once the set-up is in place Kobayashi grips hold of the viewer and refuses to let go. This is fierce, relentlessly impressive filmmaking (the sequence involving the bamboo sword is even more devastating than Miike’s). It’s also one of the most spectacularly beautiful films I’ve ever seen. To reuse a tired cliché I’ve been guilty of before, you could take any moment from this film and hang it on your wall. Put simply, this is the greatest film that not nearly enough people have seen.
6. The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder) – Well, shucks. Sometimes you just need to draw the curtains, uncork a bottle of red and put on a stone-cold-classic. For me, the go-to movie at those times is Billy Wilder’s surprisingly-dark romantic comedy. An insurance man lets out his apartment to his superiors to use for their affairs in exchange for getting a bump up the ladder… But when his boss brings back the elevator lady he’s crushing on, he can’t quite let it go so easily.
This morally dubious set-up sails on Jack Lemmon’s amiable performance as C.C. Baxter, before dipping into unexpectedly serious territory once it becomes clear how wounded Shirley MacClaine’s pixie-dream-girl Fran Kubelik really is. Wilder went to MacClaine with the role once it became clear on the set of Some Like It Hot that Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t be up to the task. The emotional weight is a counter-balance to the deft, jovial wordplay between the characters. A multifaceted gem that exudes nothing but class despite it’s somewhat tawdry premise.
5. My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki) – Imagine a world without drama. A world where everything is about play and discovery and relaxation. A world where everything is just fine. Where you are okay. That’s the world of My Neoghbour Totoro, Studio Ghibli’s signature film and Miyazaki’s finest work, in my eyes. It may lack the complexities of Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa, yet this film has become a sort of safe haven for me. Had a bad day? Troubled by something? Finding it hard to let go? I’ll put Totoro on and, for 85 breezy minutes, everything else can just slide away. Okay, so there is a little drama – when Mae gets lost toward the end of the picture – but it’s mild and easily rectified in a world where A CATBUS CAN COME AND RESCUE YOU. If ever I need to escape, this is where I go.
4. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) – At the considerably-more-worrying end of the scale in my stack of comfort movies is this one. My love of The Shining is somewhat schizophrenic, as I simply can’t decide between the book and the film. They’re very different beasts. Stephen King’s novel is more openly supernatural in nature, more loaded with backstory and context for Jack Torrance’s downward spiral, plagued by bees and evil topiary animals and it ends completely differently. It’s a great page-turner.
Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, is a familial drama with the occasional fantastic element, one that winds in grimly with a kind of stomach-churning inevitability. Jack Nicholson is on overblown form here, playing it unhinged from the very beginning. His madness as Torrance accelerates very quickly. Too quickly for some. But, in a film where there’re no shadows for the evils to lurk, Kubrick uses the off-kilter in broad daylight to trouble and disarm. Obsessed with symmetry, progenitor to a great number of obsessives and conspiracy theorists (see Room 237), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining isn’t so much a film as a labyrinth. Once you’re in it, the exit’s very hard to find.
3. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott) – Scott redefined the look and attitude toward science fiction films with this haunted-house-in-space horror flick, which thrives on the exactitude of its design elements. As mentioned previously when talking about Blade Runner, Scott’s always been a man who trades in aesthetics. For Alien he sought for something new, and found it in H.R. Giger’s astonishing, perverse artwork. From that nest egg came the alien – later christened the xenomorph – a Freudian nightmare that goes to town on the working class crew of the Nostromo.
Alien is a perfect film. Exceptionally well paced, flawlessly realised (every shot, every camera move feels wholly deliberate), convincingly acted. It brought Sigourney Weaver to the attention of millions and made space a tactile, grubby, mean place to be. In Prometheus, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw searches desperately for evidence of God. In Alien the overriding feeling is that there is no God; you’re going to have to save yourself.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) – Growing up in the UK in the 80’s and 90’s, Vietnam was a distant, abstract concept; a piece of recent history turned into fables by movies, ricocheting into genre pieces like Predator. Apocalypse Now never felt like a documentary film – it was too bonkers, too psychedelic (all that coloured smoke) – but it felt like it held an emotional truth; a sustained delirium and otherworldliness. That disconnect from reality. That craziness. Coppola said the film was Vietnam.
Though the Redux cut features many worthwhile and illuminating extra scenes, I would quickly take Coppola’s 1979 theatrical version if pressed to make a choice. It’s just the right size; epic but still kinetic in its sinuous movement toward, yes, a heart of darkness. Whats more, it’s all killer. Rewatching Apocalypse Now what strikes you is how iconic every single scene has become. From Wilard listening to those creepy recordings of Kurtz during the mission briefing, through the USO show, the explosive ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ sequence, the last bridge, right to the end of the river. Every. Single. Scene. I love watching Apocalypse Now. But something else is better…
1. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch) – A film which changed the way I thought about films. What they meant to me. What they could be. Mulholland Drive came out just about the time I had decided to take a more vested interest in cinema, and illuminated a level of depth and intrigue that I hadn’t even anticipated. The first time I saw it I didn’t get it. It took a few goes to riddle-out it’s mysteries. But I was instantly attracted to it; Lynch’s intoxicating talent at building unseen menace.
A deadly, sensuous nightmare, Mulholland Drive exerts its incredible influence over the viewer from the opening minutes; Angelo Badalamenti’s beautiful score creating a haunting sense of foreboding over the title credits as a limousine snakes its way through the darkness. From there on I was captivated. Why did everything feel so dangerous? Even the daylight scenes feel as though anything could happen at any moment… like the world could come apart at the edges. And all the while, building in this rotten vision of Los Angeles, is the Hollywood romance between Naomi Watt’s chirpy Betty and Laura Elena Harring’s amnesiac ‘Rita’. As with the best of Lynch, there’s an optimism that love can conquer the darkness.
Of course that sense of wrongfulness is there for a reason, and when the illusion shatters, so does the movie, sucking back in on itself as identities shift and flashbacks reveal ugly truths. What sets Mulholland Drive apart from other ‘twist’ films (and I’m loathe to lump it in with such gimmicky stories) is that once the ‘truth’ is known, it only grows deeper, more open to interpretation.
That’s if I’m right of course. The beauty is that there is no ‘right’ answer. Lynch remains as tight-lipped as ever, allowing viewers to imprint their own significance on things. Regardless this is exceptional, breathtaking, wondrous filmmaking. And it’s my favourite movie of all.
That’s it. We’re done. Silencio.
2 thoughts on “List: My 301 Favourite Movies (20-1)”
Really enjoyed this. Nothing profound to say, but it’s interesting to me again to see how close we are in “taste” (or whatever). Maybe I gotta make a top 20 and share it on the comments here…
Feel free! Glad you enjoyed it. This whole thing was a kind of curious exercise to see if I could create a list of such a size which was anything but arbitrary. And I’d admit that even now things would rank differently. But the nearer the top you get the more solid it is. I’d be interested to see other peoples’ top 20s.