I hope that you found Part One of the series invigorating. I also hope that it is causing you to evaluate your own choices and, possibly, disagree with me. That is OK; as far as I know, you are still allowed to. Anyway, what I present here are my personal top ten favorite films. Some of you may be aware of my top pick; but some of these I have not discussed in great detail. So, hopefully you find a few you like or a few that you have been curious about and then go rent them. Again, these are presented in descending order
10) Citizen Kane (dir- Orson Welles, 1941)
Yes, I know that many who watch this film these days have walked away disappointed. It has been hyped enormously, to the point where it, in many ways, cannot please anyone. Look at me: having to explain why I consider the film one of my favorites by opening with the statement that it will disappoint some people. Yet there are two reasons
First, what is necessary is to look at what the film ultimately did. It invented the language of film as we understand it today. It no longer became about telling the story as simply as possibly for a mass audiences. The film was among the first popular films to not tell its story chronologically. There are gags with the camera. Angles and lighting become important to how audiences are supposed to view the character’s internal thoughts. These are so common place now that they are taken for granted.
Second, the film is not constrained to its time period. It is not just about William Randolph Hearst, as commonly assumed. Watching it now, I see Jerry Bruckheimer – a man so concerned with making money that he destroys his own credibility. Kane is any famous man who forgot why he became involved in the business that he wanted to be in. At first, Kane believes that running a newspaper will be “fun.” Is the man ending his life, locked away in Xanadu, truly having fun? I know there are many who think “Rosebud” is corny, but it is the focal point of the film. Here was a man who never found happiness, except at the earliest moments in his life. Citizen Kane took a simple story and turned it into the template that every filmmaker now follows.
9) Boogie Nights (dir Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
If there was justice in world, in 1997, this film would have won 11 Oscars instead of Titanic. Instead, it was swept aside to meet public demand instead of recognizing artistic merit.
Thankfully this film is still well-regarded amongst critics. This is not a film about the porn industry. This film is not a silly sex comedy. It is about a dying era of the film industry at large; when the home video market began to dictate how films were marketed and great directors of the 1970s found increasingly little support from profit driven studios. It is something that the industry has never quite recovered from, even if certain directors did. The sex in the film contains no passion or any signs of love. The people are just making a product. In some ways, sex is treated more as an obligation than any sort of desire. Diggler comes up with the idea of creating an actual film franchise; very little sex is shown in it. Actually, I think that there is only one scene when Diggler has sex on camera. It is about people trying to make a product. They become perturbed when amateurs threaten their dynamic and their careers. By the end of the film, the performers are mere clouds of what they used to be, trying their hardest to regain a family dynamic they had lost.
What studio has not gone through this? Today, what television station does not feel threatened by YouTube? What journalist does not feel threatened by bloggers? Boogie Nights was not just nostalgic, but downright forward thinking in how the lowering of barriers of entry would cause a loss of quality, even in something as seedy and morally ambiguous as pornography.
8) The Big Lebowski (dir The Coen Brothers, 1998)
Yes, I know, I am so unique for proclaiming the Coen Brothers stoner comedy to be amongst my personal favorite films of all time.
Hear me out. This film is not merely about a man who derives the basis of his existence from whatever drugs he can ingest. It is actually one of the most carefully crafted satires of all time. The film derives its plot from the film noirs of the 1940s. The Dude is in every single scene, providing some sort of narrative focus to an otherwise convoluted scheme. This was a technique used to help the audiences keep track of whatever the villains were planning. The Dude is exactly this, reflecting on how wary audiences were of this technique In fact, The Dude is a perfect sieve; all of his attributes and dialogue come from other characters. Perhaps that is why the film is such a cult classic – he was such a reflection of the audience that they embraced him. This film was also a big risk for the Coens – they had just come from the critically acclaimed Fargo and decided to create something that was not likely to endear themselves in the same manner. It actually took a while for this film to be taken seriously, rather than taken as a simplistic comedy about a man who drinks a bit too much and smokes a bit to many “Js.”
Well, the Coens to smart to release this film when they did. It showed a sort of hidden integrity. Besides, more people talk about this film more than Fargo, Barton Fink, No Country For Old Men, and any number of other great films they have made. Years from now, after everyone has forgotten the wood chipper sequence in Fargo, The Dude will still abide.
7) Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (dir Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
It seems pointless to create a favorites list without including at least one film by Stanley Kubrick. The choice was a difficult one, but in the end, Dr. Strangelove cannot be ignored.
One reason is that it represented a new sort of benchmark for others to follow. To put it another way, you never hear about anyone who wishes to make, say, the next Shining. Everyone seems to want to emulate Dr. Strangelove. The sort of idea of a world gone mad paying for its sins seems to appeal to everyone. At this time in the Cold War, no one was really sure why the U.S. and the Soviet Union still possessed the mentality they did that was likely to get people killed. Dr. Strangelove helped jump-start the culture of doubt that would cause many young , people to openly defy the government and their attempts to draft them into the Vietnam War. Kubrick used the film to cement himself as one of Hollywood’s premier filmmakers, and Peter Sellers was actually taken as a serious actor and film satire was reborn. However, there is one item that still makes the film quite relevant to the world.
These days, the closing shots still serve as a warning. The Soviet Union is long gone, but many still have the sort of us vs them mentality that still gets countries into unnecessary wars. Maybe, someday, the world will find themselves in the exact same position. Hopefully, more people take heed of the warning Dr. Strangelove offers.
6) Goodfellas (dir Martin Scorsese, 1990)
“As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a gangster.”
The film opens with Scorsese’s version of “Call Me Ishmael” in his most personal film. I know that many will say that my choice is silly. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are, technically, better films. But this is a list of my favorites, and I am going to pick Goodfellas every time. Why? Because Goodfellas feels far more honest and introspective. It is as though Scorsese is delivering an apology for helping to glamorize the lifestyle that he was trying to criticize. Henry Hill does have his dream come true, but the glamor does not last, especially when he is burying a body, and then going to retrieve it months later. By the end of the film, he is a penniless drug addict who has been abandoned and forgotten.
Of course, he still views his time as a gangster as part of the “good old days.” But we have seen them for ourselves. Could anyone have lived the life Henry lived and truly come out on top. He exemplifies the sort of hubris that Greek playwrights struggled to put in to words. Scorsese did not have that problem – partly because this is based on a real figure. Yet the real reason has to do with the fact that Scorsese may have been a victim to such a hubris himself. Would it have been easy for him to take a romanticized view of his characters? I do not know. Maybe this was a way for Scorsese to prevent making that mistake.
5) Videodrome (dir David Cronenberg, 1982)
David Cronenberg is the most criminally underrated filmmaker of all time. He certainly has his fans and has been critically praised, but his films do not gross nearly the amount they should and he does not have the awards that his work deserves. I could write an entire article about how, in 2005, the fact that his A History of Violence did not win (much less was not nominated for) Best Picture at the Oscars demonstrates a drastic need for the voting process to be changed.
But then, Cronenberg’s films have always been challenging. Videodrome shows that. In terms of spectacle, nothing much actually happens in the film. I am still not sure if the third act (and even the second act) was not just massive hallucination. Many of the effects are quite disgusting to look at. Even the content of Videodrome (the show) is hard to watch. One person referred to it as snuff and “female torture porn.” I cannot argue (except to point out that some of the victims on the show were male). But that is precisely the point of the film. The average prime time line up contains the same sort of sludge that populates Videodrome. How is Videodrome any less damaging than, say, Jersey Shore? I cannot tell, yet it is also a highly watched show. David Cronenberg used the film to enter the first (and so far, only) philosophical discussion of what draws audiences to garbage and what sort of effect it will have on the mind.
Videodrome is the sort of political discussion Oliver Stone has been trying to have his entire film career, yet his deep meditations only get a fraction of the press that Stone’s bombastic approach gets. Time and time again, society proves Videodrome right.
4) 8 1/2 (dir Frederico Fellini, 1963)
This is the single greatest film about the process of making a work of art.
The film was created at a sort of impasse in Frederico Fellini’s career. Like Guido in the film, Fellini simply did not know what sort of film he wanted to make next. He had gained fame (and several Oscars) for such films as La Dolce Vita, La Strada, and Nights of Cabiria. Of course, with such popularity comes new levels of angst. When an artist usually discusses this, he is labeled a whiner. “You have an opportunity few have” people say “why complain?”
Fellini does not really use the film to complain about his career. He just wishes to reflect on whether or not he means anything at all. He acknowledges that his images make him seem as though he does not understand the world, and says that quite literally in the film. This film is also among Fellini’s most surreal. But then, when can emotion ever be expressed literally? By making the film surreal, Fellini helped in the expression of his emotions. He wants audiences to truly share his experiences, not simply tell them about his mental turmoil. Several of the best scenes (particularly the brothel scene) are all about Guido trying to work out his own mental turmoil. Some would say that these bits could be an inspiration for Guido, but then, Guido uses his films as a method of escape. When that is impossible, Guido retreats. Fellini also did, in his own way. Yet Fellini’s retreat resulted in this.
If it seems as though I am having a difficult time describing the film, that is not a mistake. The strength of the film is how it makes an individual feel. The best thing I can do is tell people to go see it and have them describe it to me. I feel that is what Fellini would want me to say.
3) Dawn of the Dead (dir George A Romero, 1978)
The greatest horror film of all time, Dawn of the Dead is as influential a film as any other. Many just do not recognize it as such; how can such a violent, gory film be considered a work of art.
Very easily, it turns out. The best horror films are not gimmicky or about their monsters. Usually, in the best horror films, the scariest thing is the people in the situations. That is certainly the case in Dawn of the Dead. Peter, Roger, Fran, and Stephen seem to not care about the zombie apocalypse on the outside. They are content to the “perfect lives” they have found, in which they are squatters and villains. The zombies are almost an after thought in the film. They are slow, stupid, and easy to fool. They are not a threat to society – in many ways, their instinctual drive is better than the acts of violence that the people commit against each other.
This film certainly helped inspire the then emerging Italian Giallo movement and the gory slasher film of the 1980s. But it goes beyond that. Think of your favorite horror films. What makes them memorable is not the monster, not the threat. It is the people’s reaction to it. This film is all about people. Today, no one realizes this as much (in fairness, Zack Snyder’s remake of the film did get this idea more right than wrong) but horror is all about the spectacle and not the fear. Romero’s film is equal parts horror and satire – the result is something no one has been able to equal.
2) Edward Scissorhands (dir Tim Burton, 1990)
This film is not unique. This film is not an anomaly. This film is practically a one-of-a-kind freak of nature.
This is an example of a director who was given carte blanche to make a personal statement under the Hollywood system. It is something that should not happen. But it did, and for that we should all be thankful. I have read articles that insist the character of Edward is an allegory – from autism to Charlie Chaplin to the change from 1950s suburban lifestyle to modern day living in the same area. This may all be true, yet the real appeal is more basic than that. The film is an honest portrayal of the life of most artists. Edward’s talent lies in his ability to express himself in a unique way – but can only do so in that one way. Every single artists deals with these sort of conflicts and most self destruct in the way the film shows. The film also flaunts convention – most Hollywood films have whatever deformed character be ostracized but later excepted. With this, that traditional (boring) storyline is turned in reverse. As a result, the film feels far more alienating and lonely. Edward has a happy life that is taken away from him due to a large misunderstanding. He still possesses his talents, true, but the novelty has worn off. Maybe people were already looking for a way to be rid of him; the accusations of theft just seemed to justify those feelings. Still, when Edward returns back to his castle, one really does feel the sense of loss. No one has ever been able to capture that level of emotion in quite the same way.
The film is honest, unconventional, and downright heartbreaking. What more can you ask for?
1) Brazil (dir Terry Gilliam, 1985)
A film that is still debated among those who have seen it, examined by those studying the Hollywood system and how often executives miss the point completely, and about how each and every one of us still dream, long after those dreams have faded away.
Ebert once said that people usually pick their favorite film based on how they wanted the adolescence to have been like. I respectfully disagree; people pick their films based on their own outlook of life. Brazil perfectly matches mine. The daily bureaucracy has driven me to madness on several occasions. It is gratifying to know that I am not the only one. The world of Sam Lowry is one that externalizes his mind. He lives for convenience, but nothing seems to work. He wakes up late due to his alarm clock malfunctioning, cannot eat breakfast despite his elaborate breakfast machine, cannot work due to all the restrictions placed upon him by computers, and ultimately winds up an enemy of the state when he is trying to do the right thing.
Do I care to guess how many times the little items in our lives secretly drive us crazy? How cars have caused traffic jams, how social networking has eliminated every single aspect of privacy, and how computers have only increased our workload? We live in the world of Brazil. I become more convinced of that each time I see the film. But then, it is not any specific person’s fault. Everyone in the film is merely doing their job; no one possesses any malice. I hear a lot of criticisms in politics that certain people are just downright evil, but I have my doubts. More than likely, they are trying to operate the way that the system allows them. When it all goes wrong – well, we know what happens then.
It is nice to know that films offer at least an escape from that. An escape that makes our world seem a little happier, a little more introspective, and a little more pleasant.
Unless the DVD starts to skip.