More lockdown/quarantine/circuit-breaker/whatever-euphemism-your-country-is-using content. This time, a run-down of my Top 25 favourite films. Ever. Some definition of ‘favourite’ – I go with one film per filmmaker otherwise a good 1/4 of this list is Kubrick, and these are hardly the ‘best’ films of all time, just those that connect with me in some way. Obviously they are all of the highest quality, but I will not include something like Zodiac (a perfect movie) simply because it lacks (to me at least) that little something extra. It is a purely subjective metric, but one that I believe has merit. And now, to begin with my favourite movie when I was 10 years old …
Honourable Mention – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
No movie has ever appealed more to the id of a ten-year-old boy than this one. Essentially a ‘boy and his dog’ (if the dog were a killer robot from the future in the form of an Austrian bodybuilder) story, T2 took the minimalist thrills of the original Terminator and amped them up to unimaginable excess. Two decades after seeing it for the first time, so much of T2 is still seared into my memory – Arnie double-fisting shotguns, the eighteen-wheeler/motorcycle chase, the way Robert Patrick runs, how the big lines of the first movie are repurposed into this one, and most impressive of all, wringing pathos out of ‘hasta la vista, baby’. Boasting technically superb craftsmanship, goal-oriented motivation action scenes, the seamless merging of practical stunts and effects with CGI, and a cohesive storyline, T2 (and Jurassic Park) will forever represent the height of 90s blockbuster filmmaking.
25. Do The Right Thing (1989)
What is ‘the right thing’, really? Famously, Spike Lee has said that (white) people always question the morality of Mookie’s climactic decision at the end of the movie, but never about the moment of racially charged brutality that led to said decision in the first place. Prioritising property damage over the lives of black people, blaming black people for the violence inflicted upon them, and justifying the extralegal actions of the police – this is Spike Lee’s 1989 work of incendiary brilliance, but also is quite literally today’s news. Thirty years after the controversy surrounding Lee’s film, it is now possible to see it for what it is – a stunning dissection of the racial faultlines and power disparities in American society, as seen through the microcosm of a single Bed-Stuy neighbourhood on one of the hottest days of the year. Like all great films, the artistry (1) of Do The Right Thing endures even decades after its release. It is, however, an abiding shame that its subject matter does, and with so little change from 1989.
24. American Psycho (2000)
Do you like American Psycho? The early scenes of Bateman’s monologue were a little too on-the-nose for my taste. But when the business card scene came out, I think it really comes into its own, commercially and artistically. The whole movie has a wicked, mordant sense of humour, and a sheen of satirical wit, which really gives its observations a big boost. It has been compared to Fight Club, but I think American Psycho has a far more bitter, cynical take on masculinity. In 2000, Mary Harron released this; American Psycho, her most accomplished film. I think its undisputed masterpiece is this scene I’m referencing, a scene so quotable, most people probably don’t listen to the lines Patrick Bateman is saying. But they should, because it’s not just about the joys of watching Jared Leto get his head bashed in or the importance of Christian Bale’s magnificent performance, it’s also a personal statement about the movie itself. Hey reader! TRY GETTING THIS SCENE OUT OF YOUR HEAD NOW, YOU FUCKING STUPID BASTARD!
[smokes a cigar and brushes hair out of my blood-streaked face.]
23. Rear Window (1954)
Can I make a confession? For a ‘film person’, I’m really not that into Hitchcock. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s The Seinfeld Effect, where what was once groundbreaking has been adopted into so many different movies that it is difficult to see what was so special about it. Except for Rear Window. Rear Window is my jam. It is (even for the Master of Suspense) so diabolically well-constructed, with all the psychosexual drama of Vertigo, but delivered in a subtler package. Above all, Rear Window is just so goddamn clever in its simplicity, beginning from its central conceit of a wheelchair-bound invalid who believes he witnessed a murder through his photographic lens. It is a masterclass on how to utilise the POV shot, which not only induces an unbearably suspenseful helplessness, but also reflects an understanding of the voyeuristic thrill of watching other people in the dark more than any other film in history. (2)
22. Toy Story 2 (1999)
There has always been an existentialist current to the Toy Story series, as it depends on beings who are essentially immortal but functionally ephemeral – plastic lasts forever but its purpose does not. The height of this existentialism comes in Toy Story 2, where Woody (Tom Hanks) comes face to face with both his own mortality and immortality. Continue to live a life with Andy until being inevitably discarded, or choose the neverending but sterile confines of a toy museum? It is, no joke, the best possible remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Heavy stuff aside, Toy Story 2 ranks as the finest perpetual motion device that Pixar has ever made, with a loud-quiet-loud plotting that rivals the best Pixies song, mixing gripping action scenes with some of this series’ most powerful emotional beats – this is a film that contains Pixar’s most thrilling scene (the airport chase) with its most affecting (When She Loved Me). Also, I still cackle as loudly at the ‘use your head joke’ as I did when I was 11, so that has to count for something.
21. High and Low (1963)
The Japanese title for Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low literally translates to ‘Heaven and Hell’, and it is that rare beast that seamlessly melds together two genres and elevates them both. Shoe executive Kingo Gondo (Kurosawa favourite Toshiro Mifune) is about to complete a takeover bid of his company … until he is informed that his son has been kidnapped … except the kidnapper made a mistake and kidnapped his chauffeur’s son … but is still demanding the same ransom for the boy’s life. The first half of High and Low, set in Gondo’s palatial mansion perched on a hill, serves as a morality play while the second half, set in the slums below, is a police procedural spiralling from Gondo’s decision. Both halves would be magnificent on their own, but together they are perfection. This is a film of contrast and inequality, of the friction between the rich and the poor, the moral and the immoral, conveyed through Kurosawa’s unerring sense of scale and composition, and featuring some of the finest black and white cinematography put to celluloid. Of the great man’s filmography, High and Low may not be as famous as Seven Samurai or Rashomon or Yojimbo, but trust me on this – it is every bit their equal, and maybe even a little better.
20. The Thing (1982)
The best evidence (along with, once again, Jurassic Park) for the primacy of practical effects, The Thing would be worth recommending if only on the basis of its most singular achievement. Rob Bottin’s (with an assist from Stan Winston) superb creature effects are still as chilling, creative, and creepy in 2020 as they were in 1982. Yet The Thing is more than just its magnificent effects, thanks to John Carpenter’s unrelentingly nihilistic tone and the world-weariness that emanates from Kurt Russell and the motley crew of supporting character actors trapped in Antarctica with a shape-shifting, parasitic alien. The Thing drips with menace and tension from its very beginning, but is also willing to throw out a shocking moment every once in a while (3) It is a movie unafraid of bleakness, both of the cosmic Lovecraftian horror variety and the more prosaic (but no less scary) mistrust of one’s fellow man. It is a movie unafraid to be repulsive and disgusting, and unafraid to end on one of the most haunting ‘oh shit we are all screwed’ moments in cinema. It is a movie that is entirely unafraid, and that is what makes it so terrifying.
19. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino’s best (4) movie can be summed up nicely by legendary director Howard Hawks. When asked what made a good movie, his response was a pithy ‘three good scenes and no bad ones’. Inglourious Basterds is a movie made of nothing but great scenes. The opening, which itself could be a masterful short film. Aldo Raine’s briefing. The story of Hugo Stiglitz. The introduction of The Bear Jew. The strudel scene. The pub scene (which I submit is Tarantino’s best ever scene). Shoshanna girding for battle. Every-fuckin-thing in the premiere, from Brad Pitt speaking ‘Italian’ to the indelible image of the burning reels of film over Melanie Laurent’s laughing face. And of course, the moment where Tarantino himself basically breaks the fourth wall to tell us that this might be his masterpiece. Well, y’know what, Quentin? I think you’re quite right there. With spectacular acting across the board led by one of the all-time iconic performances from Christoph Waltz, Basterds is a piece of irreverent, entertaining, and thought-provoking art from a director working at the absolute peak of his formidable powers.
18. The Dark Knight (2008)
I love Batman. A lot less than I used to, what with the whole sliiiiiiightly fascistic undercurrent to the concept of a rich strongman literally beating order into society, but my fascination with the character will likely never go away. In hindsight, Christopher Nolan was always the perfect director to take on the character, with his monastic sense of asceticism and his fetishism of sacrifice. I will always remember the first time I watched The Dark Knight, thrilled to the very bone that not only was Nolan portraying the character and its mythos hyper-seriously, he was doing it well. (5) The Dark Knight is not perfect, with everything that happens after The Joker’s defeat (sans Gary Oldman’s iconic ending speech) being somewhat perfunctory, and a better movie might have ended with Two-Face in the wind to be dealt with in the sequel rather than rush to wrap up that particular storyline. Nonetheless, The Dark Knight retains its importance as the moment when the superhero genre came this close to being true art, and the alchemy of its propulsive plot, muscular filmmaking and Heath Ledger’s transcendent brilliance ensures that it still remains top of the ever-expanding mountain of superhero movies.
17. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Set in 90 minutes of real time, Cléo from 5 to 7 follows the titular Cléo (Corinne Marchand, superb) as she goes about her daily business – a tarot card reading, rehearsals for a singing performance, a meet-cute with a soldier on leave from the Algerian war – except hanging over all of this is the fact that Cléo is waiting for the results of a cancer test. From the less well-known (but no less artistically valuable) ‘Left Bank’ group of the French New Wave, Agnes Varda uses an almost documentary-like approach to observe her protagonist, consistently belittled by the men in her life who do not take her illness seriously. Across the span of its multiple conversations, Varda interrogates existentialist and feminist themes, never letting her protagonist off the hook for her self-obsession and narcissism while also acknowledging how the music industry and society at large has shaped her into what she is. The film ends on a beautiful grace note – a moment of connection between two lonely individuals and an appreciation of how the ties that bind can be the foundation of what makes a meaningful life. It may only be for 90 minutes, but after watching this film, you will feel like you have known Cléo your whole life.
16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
I’ve already done this one, so just read the entry in the best of the decade list.
15. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
One of the most unromantic romantic films (or maybe it’s the other way round) of all time, Eternal Sunshine is either about two people whose bond is so strong it transcends memory or two people trapped in a toxic cycle of dependency. It’s probably a little of both. Thanks to the sterling combination of Charlie Kaufman’s masterful non-linear screenplay and Michel Gondry’s visual creativity, Eternal Sunshine grapples with difficult questions of love and connection, beginning with the one at the heart of the film – if you could erase an ex-lover from your memory, would you do it? So begins a film that takes place largely in the confines of Joel’s (Jim Carrey, never better) mind, as he sifts through the wreckage of his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) and attempts to protect it (and his memories of her) from his choice to delete them. This is a film awash in melancholy, capturing the tone and essence of a relationship at all points – the dizzy ecstasy of connection, the savagery of an argument, the lingering bitterness of a break-up. And at the end, a single ‘ok’, whispered either as a sign of defeat or of triumph. Probably both. But isn’t that just the way love works?
14. Tokyo Story (1953)
The story could not be simpler. An old couple (from a small town) decides to visit their children who live in Tokyo. The children are busy and ignore them, with the exception of their widowed daughter-in-law, who is struggling with her own feelings of loneliness. The old couple, understanding they are intruding, decide to leave early. On the journey back, the old woman dies, and the family gathers for her funeral. And yet beneath this simplicity is an unfathomable depth of wisdom and empathy for the human condition. If most narrative film tends towards prose, Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece is the rare poetic film – poetic not in the sweeping Malickian or surrealist Bunuelian style, but in the minimalism of a haiku, with no single shot wasted. Ozu’s camera never moves, observing its characters in medium shots so elegantly composed they could be exhibited in museums. There is a gentleness to Tokyo Story that belies its emotional power – I cried watching it the first time and memories of it still make me well up with tears. It feels as painful and invigorating as honest advice from an old friend, advice that reminds us that while life is difficult and painful and lonely, there are sometimes the briefest of moments when it is not. We should treasure these moments for the gifts they are.
13. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Has there been a more apt description of David Lynch than ‘Lynchian’? I’d be hard-pressed to name a filmmaker more recognisably unique than Lynch, whose patented blend of pre-80s Americana, sexual temptation, body horror, and just outright fucking craziness can only be described as being undeniably him. Mulholland Dr. is all this and more, a heady cocktail of the bizarre and weird that somehow makes sense – even when things do not cohere on a narrative level, they do on an emotional/thematic level, which is what really counts. Billed as a poisonous love letter to Hollywood, Mulholland Dr. tells the story (or does it?) of Betty (Naomi Watts in one of the top 5 female performances ever in film), a innocent ingenue trying to break in the film industry, who ends up caught in a web of conspiracies involving amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring) and beleaguered director Adam (Justin Theroux). Told in a blend of noir tropes and dream logic, Mulholland Dr. is alternately funny, sad, and terrifying, often all in the same scene, as Lynch pieces together an intricate network of symbols and motifs that all add up to the sense of a waking nightmare – the dark side of the Hollywood dream.
12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
There has always been something of the savant about Steven Spielberg, the wunderkind who always intuits the precise moment to cut for maximum tension. No other movie captures Spielberg’s magical gift quite like Raiders, which like my number 19 film, could really just be a compendium of all its spectacular scenes. Repackaged from the 1930s serials of Spielberg and co-writer George Lucas’s youth, Raiders is the cinema as pure thrill ride, good-naturedly whipping (pun!) from one setpiece to another. Yet, the difference between Raiders and every other action blockbuster that came in its wake is Spielberg’s understanding of pacing. Not just the pacing of the overall film (which itself is excellent), but even the pacing of a particular action sequence. Too many modern blockbusters are exhausting in the way they just pile up effects and fights and stunts, but Raiders doles them out with the precision of a brain surgeon, with each new element reshaping the characters’ relationship to their goals. (6) In the middle of this sturm und drang is Harrison Ford at his most roguish and dashing, radiating charisma as Indiana Jones and grounding the action with his character. With Ford’s movie-star charm and Spielberg’s directorial brio, Raiders is quite simply the most enjoyable time one can ever have in the cinema.
11. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
I give you a basic comedic principle by the dearly departed Roger Ebert. “People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing … A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn’t know he’s wearing a funny hat … ah, now you’ve got something.” This is Spinal Tap is a stack of funny hats stretching to the stratosphere, worn by people who do not have a clue. It is the perfect combination of the sublime and the ridiculous, with a soundtrack that parodies over-the-top metal so seriously it is indistinguishable from it. It is a movie that effectively created its own genre of the mockumentary, a fake documentary following the travails of C-list metal band Spinal Tap. This means that it is responsible for The Office, Parks and Recreation, and What We Do In The Shadows, which alone makes it worthwhile. Beyond its glorious descendants, Spinal Tap is also just the funniest fucking movie of all time, with killer lines (7) and killer-er setpieces (8) that remain as side-splittingly hilarious the first and tenth time you see them. It is a movie that perfected the art of deadpan, a satire so impossibly specific and accurate that it could only be made by people who genuinely loved the subject in question. In this movie, the laughs go to eleven.
10. Citizen Kane (1941)
After the Citizen Kane of comedies we have the Citizen Kane of … movies. It speaks to the towering greatness of Orson Welles’ debut that it is still used to this day as shorthand for masterpiece. I love watching Kane with people who have never seen it, as it dawns upon them that this supposedly stuffy ‘classic’ is one that stands the test of time so well that you could imagine it being made the year before (with minor tweaks, of course). I saw it expecting to ‘eat my vegetables’, but Kane is two hours of the finest steak served rare. Made by 26(!)-year-old Welles, who served as its writer, director, producer and lead actor, Kane is one of those expressions of singular genius that makes one marvel at the potential of humankind. It establishes so much of what we know as modern film – deep focus cinematography, expressionist lighting, unreliable narration, flashback structure, fluid camera, forced perspective, low-angle shots, overlapping dialogue, montage technique – that watching Citizen Kane is a film education course in and of itself. And above all, it is just so entertaining, gliding through the life of dead newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane with such ease and confidence that you can’t help but be swept up in its wake. I love all these films (obviously), but consider this a plea. If you see any one of them, make it Citizen Kane, for it above all others establishes exactly what the medium of cinema could be. 80 years on, it still remains the case.
9. Mother / Madeo (2009)
Bong Joon-ho is at his best at his most grounded. As much as I love his movies about mutant pigs and apocalypse trains and tadpole-monsters, there is something about the way he brings his signature off-kilter sensibility to a seemingly ‘realistic’ scenario that is pure magic. And Bong has never dealt with a more realistic milieu than Mother. A girl is dead. The key suspect is an impoverished, intellectually disabled young man. The police, incompetent and lazy, trick him into a confession, which is believed by the village. Alone and desperate, his mother is the only one who can clear his name. Thus begins one of the finest neo-noirs ever made, that grounds itself on that most elemental of tropes – a mother’s love – and takes its viewer through an unpredictable journey through corruption, sexual favours, and mob justice. Centred around an astonishing performance (9) by veteran actor Kim Hye-ja, Mother is the film that best exhibits exactly why Bong Joon-ho is so great – the seemingly wild but carefully calculated tonal shifts, the impeccably precise shot composition and selection, and (in one of the best ‘revelation’ sequences ever made) a climax that relies entirely on what is inside and outside of the frame. It also has the best combination of opening and closing shots I have ever seen. It is devilishly clever and painfully affecting, the opus of a contemporary master working at the top of his game.
8. Stroszek (1977)
Werner Herzog has spoken before of ‘the overwhelming indifference of nature’, but Stroszek, his 1977 dark comedy, deals with something far more terrifying – the overwhelming indifference of society. Following street performer Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) as he flees Germany to Wisconsin, Stroszek dispassionately watches as Bruno’s concept of the American dream slowly but surely falls apart in the Midwestern chill. His possessions are taken away by the bank. His prostitute girlfriend leaves him. He suffers humiliation upon humiliation, in the face of a pitiless world that barely notices he exists. The world of Stroszek, as is usual with the world of Herzog, is one of bleakness and despair, punctuated only by brief flashes of optimism and pathos. Yet this is not a nihilistic film, for Herzog plays its bleakness not for exploitation, but for humour. We never laugh at Bruno (one in Herzog’s long line of weirdo outsiders), only at the cosmic ridiculousness of his situation. The film ends, famously, with a shot of a dancing chicken, and I cannot help but think this is Herzog’s summation of life. A chicken trapped in a glass dome, forced to dance for the amusement of some inexplicable power. Yet it still keeps dancing. I suppose there is some solace to be taken out of that. The alternative is too difficult to bear.
7. Cries and Whispers (1972)
I am not sure if there has ever been a film so unflinchingly honest about death as Cries and Whispers. Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman famously represented Death as a chess-playing figure in The Seventh Seal, but here he deals with small-d death in the form of Agnes (Harriet Andersson) who is slowly succumbing to her terminal cancer. She is cared for by her maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) and her estranged sisters Maria and Karin (Bergman constants Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin), who are more interested in picking at old scars instead of comforting their dying sister. Andersson (another of the all time top 5) gives a performance devoid of vanity, physically embodying the suffering of death to such an extent that it feels intrusive to watch. Stationed between Bergman’s more austere black-and-white pictures and his lavish later works, Cries and Whispers is (along with Winter Light) the great man’s most painful film, portraying both the agony of dying and the agony of living in the same crimson filter, with the cruelty of the sisters often being more excruciating than Agnes’ death throes. But Bergman has never been a cynic, and in the saintly figure of Anna is his hope for better things to come. Scorned by the living sisters and cheated out of her rightful inheritance, it would be easy for her to fall into the same maelstrom of misery. Still, in the end, she chooses grace, love and mercy. It is not easy for her to do so, but she does it anyway. And that, Bergman says, is the only comfort we have in the face of death. It is little, but it will do. It will have to do.
6. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia is not Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film. (10) Magnolia is not the best film of its decade. (11) Magnolia is a flawed movie – overlong (188 minutes!), pretentious (we’re all like, connected, maaaaaaaan), melodramatic (at least five ‘I’m on the verge of breaking down and so will emotionally unburden myself’ monologues), and often ridiculous (the mass singalong.) And yet, I love it to bits. There is a great scene in the otherwise execrable Man of Steel, where Superman first learns to fly. He clumsily crashes into things and can barely control his power, but there is an infectious purity to his joy. This is Magnolia, an attempt by a ludicrously talented young (28!) filmmaker to test the limits of his powers, and by god, when it works, it fucking works. The fact that it works about 98% of its crazy runtime is a bonus. An ensemble piece about a group of people in the San Fernando Valley who are all connected in some way to a kids’ quiz show, Magnolia is one of the most ambitiously bonkers movies ever made, featuring a (brilliant) totally unrelated prologue, about ten main characters, and grappling with themes of chance, parent-child relationships and loneliness wrapped up in a package of magical realism. Anderson’s craft would eventually get sharpened to a scalpel by There Will Be Blood, but I frankly prefer the balls-to-the-wall approach he takes in this one, and it is a pleasure to see just what he will try next. (12) The film features stellar performances by Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall and Jeremy Blackman, but there is no doubt who the star of this whole enterprise is. It is the wunderkind behind the camera, whose reach may exceed his grasp, but when you are reaching beyond the stars into a whole other galaxy, what does it matter if you fall a little short?
5. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974)
Taking the central premise of a Douglas Sirk melodrama and removing all Hollywood artifice from it, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s empathetic masterpiece is one of the most powerful works of art in any medium I have seen. I have seen it three times now, and each time is more transcendent than the last. Fear Eats The Soul tells the story of Emmi (Brigitte Mira, another of the Top 5), an elderly widow, who strikes up a relationship with Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a younger Moroccan migrant worker. Shockingly, the 1970s working-class German society they live in disapproves, sometimes violently. Fear Eats The Soul, which was shot in just two weeks, is proof that it is very possible to film cheaply and quickly without sacrificing style – if anything, this is one of the most stylish movies ever made thanks to Fassbinder’s expressionistic use of space. Characters are often filmed through frames within the frames like windows or through mirrored reflections. The smallness of Emmi’s apartment is emphasised through claustrophobic close-ups, and the gulf between the couple and society is shown through the exaggerated distance between them and the other characters. This film’s brilliance is also in its nuanced understanding of the different struggles both characters face – Emmi is looked down on for her age and marrying an Arabic man, but is also far more easily accepted back into society thanks to her race and ‘respectability’, while Ali remains forever the other due to his skin colour and nationality, leading to one of the most ingenious (and painful) scenes in the film where Emmi’s friends coo over how handsome Ali is in a dehumanising and objectifying way. The film ends with an almost direct plea to the viewer to treat migrant workers better, but if you have been paying attention to the news in my country, you will know that lesson has still not be learned. Maybe more people should watch Fear Eats The Soul, if only to learn a little more about their own souls.
4. Vivre sa Vie / My Life to Live (1962)
She is the very image of the modern Parisian woman. Young, chic, beautiful, insouciant, world-weary, charming, melancholic. And there is little more than that. She leaves her husband and infant son. She elects to be a prostitute for better money. She finds a pimp. He sells her to another pimp. There is a gunfight. She dies. Fin. But in the hands of Jean-Luc Godard, cinema’s most singular creative and destructive (he would say they are the same thing) force, Vivre sa Vie becomes a deconstruction of a character study with a character that actively resists being studied. Nana (Anna Karina, rounding up our Top 5) reveals little of herself to anyone, be it other characters or the viewer. There appears to be nothing beyond the image – until the moments when it cracks, such as when she dances next to a jukebox, talks philosophy with a stranger, or (in my favourite shot of all time) cries at a viewing of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. And Godard’s film knows you are trying to read it, and toys with that expectation at every single opportunity. Why is our first view of Nana after the credits a close up of the back of her head? Why does the camera swing back and forth between Nana and her husband as they converse … and continue swinging even after they have left? Why does the camera look down at the moment of Nana’s death? Why does the camera pan to the window, staring idly at passersby while Nana chats up a customer? This is a film that makes you aware it is a film, shattering as many conventions as it can in its wake, while ironically filmed in a style that we would now call docu-realism and based on studies of contemporary prostitution. And yet, despite its avant-garde provocation, Vivre sa Vie works just as well as entertainment, for nobody (nobody) has ever made cinema as cool as Godard, with his shots of Karina in her 60s bob smoking in the Parisian streets still adorning dorm rooms around the world. It is a film that is as playful as it is serious, as cool as it is clever as beautiful as it is ugly, as earthy as it is abstract, 85 minutes of philosophy, provocation and titillation served up by film’s greatest renegade. It is the spirit of cinema itself.
3. Raging Bull (1980)
Long before the term ‘toxic masculinity’ became a thing, Martin Scorsese created its most potent expression and critique. In telling the story of Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a middleweight boxer whose sexual jealousy and uncontrollable rage leads to his eventual self-destruction, Scorsese opts to do so in his purest ever exercise in style. Filmed in starkly contrasting black and white, featuring boxing scenes that eschew realism for an expressionistic portrayal of how it feels to be in the ring – including using small boxing rings when LaMotta is at his peak and large ones when he declines, the use of low-angle and high-angle shots and the Vertigo dolly-zoom trick are all excellent examples. Aside from the boxing scenes, the entire film is pure Scorsesean style amped up to the extreme, from the near-constant soundtrack of opera mixed with pop music to the muscular camera movement and the visceral, propulsive editing (thanks to the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker). In the centre of it all is De Niro’s volcanic performance, quite possibly the very best in a career filled with greatness, playing another of Scorsese’s antiheroes as a man of animalistic urges and human emotion, a sinner whose greatest punishment is to be aware of how much he is sinning and be unable to stop it. This is an unrelentingly ferocious film about the dangers of unrelenting ferocity, a portrait of self-destruction that is brave enough to spiral to the very bottom and find no hope or recovery, only a broken man, staring into a mirror, repeating the same lie over and over again to himself. “I’m the boss,” he says. “I’m the boss.” Of what, we never know. But he keeps saying it, with the desperate frenzy of one who fears what would happen if he were to ever stop.
2. 8½ (1963)
The header image of this blog and one of the best ever pieces of art about the creative process, Federico Fellini’s 8½ (so named because it was his eighth and a half film – the half was a short) follows famous film director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni, dripping cool from every pore) as he attempts to get started on making his epic science fiction film. Suffering from a creative block, he flees to a spa, where he deals with the pressure from his cast, crew and the women in his life by retreating into a world of memory and fantasy. What could have been a pretentious and self-indulgent exercise (great director makes movie about how hard it is to be a great director) is instead a gloriously carnivalesque romp bursting at the seams with creativity thanks to itshumour, lightness of touch, and self-awareness. It takes spine to make your self-representation a weak, flawed man who very much deserves the berating he receives from everyone around him, and Fellini wisely avoids the temptation to paint himself as a suffering martyr unfairly misjudged by all. (13) Above all, 8½ succeeds because Fellini makes Guido’s process (and by extension, his own) a warm and inviting one that draws the viewer in and generously makes them feel like a part of the creative mind. It is an ‘art film’ for the masses, one that can be deep and meaningful while also containing the most delicious of surface pleasures. It is a film that is funny and sad and joyous and melancholic and serious and whimsical and sprawling and intimate – all tied together by Fellini’s incredible mastery of his craft, as the whole film feels like a dance (and there are many dance sequences) thanks to how beautifully the camera is choreographed in concert with the actors and setting. 8½ is about one very specific man’s mind, but by the end, feels like it encapsulates the entirety of the human condition.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A group of primates stares at a monolith towering above. It is incomprehensible to them. But they approach it anyway, and it advances them in spite of themselves. This is both the story of and about 2001: A Space Odyssey, my favourite and the greatest film of all time. It is the standard bearer for what cinema can be. Visual effects so ahead of their time they still look cutting edge today. A story that is both elemental and hyper-specific. Images and a narrative so laden with symbolism that mountains of essays can (and have) be written about them. And in every frame, the inimitable stamp of one of the most singular of auteurs, an incomparable narrative and visual artist working in a completely different plane of existence from the norm. This is Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, the masterpiece of a career comprised of nothing but masterpieces. (14) Split into four parts, 2001 attempts nothing less than to tell the story of mankind’s evolution, from violent primates to violent primates with the facade of civilised men to whatever comes next. It is a story of discovery, both of a journey into outer space and a journey into inner space. It is a movie about humanity whose most human character is a computer, with a tone that falls somewhere between coldly removed and sub-zero. Yet, nothing I have ever seen can envelop an audience quite like it does, with the combination of its glacial pace, stunning imagery and grandiose soundtrack, it is almost like a form of guided meditation. 2001 is a sublime experience about man experiencing the sublime – a work of cinema so epic and awe-inspiring in scale and scope that it feels as though it was birthed into being. But it was made, made by a gifted but obsessive perfectionist and an entire team of artists and craftsmen, who created something of enduring value, a film that can be experienced on a sensory level or pondered on a philosophical one. It is like nothing else on earth. It is the zenith of what this art form can be. It is pure cinema, and is my favourite film of all time.
- Lee’s dolly shots, that spectacular soundtrack, the addresses to camera, the ever-rising intensity of tone, the maturity and nuance of its themes and morality.
- Shout out to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the only other movie I can think of that digs as deep into the queasy voyeurism of cinema as this one.
- If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly the moment I mean.
- This is a hill I am totally willing to die on.
- This is the differentiating factor between Nolan and Zack Snyder.
- Helpful way to understand action movies. They are about goals. The best action scenes set up clear goals, the obstacles to said goals, and convey our heroes’ plans to circumvent said obstacles. This is why the Transformers movies are failures even as ‘mindless action’.
- Personal favourite – ‘what’s wrong with being sexy?’
- Personal favourite – the first time Stonehenge is lowered.
- Another of the top 5 female performances in film, all of which are represented in this list.
- There Will Be Blood is.
- It’s a tough call, but I think it’s Goodfellas, or possibly the Three Colours trilogy if I can count that.
- Favourites – the opening montage introducing our characters that uses the device of zooming in and out of the TV to link them, the two minute tracking shot through the bowels of a TV studio, the camera remaining static in the empty kitchen while an argument takes place in another room, the absolute perfection of the final shot.
- See: Birdman. Actually, don’t. It’s not worth it.
- Fine, fine. Killer’s Kiss is only ok due to his inexperience, Spartacus and Lolita are strong but compromised by Hollywood and censorship respectively, and the second half of Full Metal Jacket is very good, but cannot help but be a letdown compared to the perfection of the first half. Other than that? The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut. An absolute murderer’s row of the greatest films of all time, each in a different genre and style, yet all recognisably Kubrickian. God, what a filmography.