My Top Ten Films

13 Nov

I’m not much into vlogs, but one thing I do enjoy watching on YouTube is videos about films – best ofs, worst ofs, critiques, techniques. I watched the recent(ish) Mark Kermode documentary, Secrets of Cinema, too, and very much enjoyed it (apart from its obsession with Moonlight, which still doesn’t appeal to me at all).

filmklappe-1078812_960_720In short, I’m an armchair cinephile, which is great because an armchair is a very good place to watch films from. So I thought I’d share with you a list of my top ten favourite films (as they stand now), and what I like about them, and hope that it doesn’t reveal anything too disturbing about my personality.

There will be everything from rom-coms to cult classics to Cold-War-era sci fi; films everyone has seen, and probably some that you’ve never heard of. The oldest film on the list harks from the 1930s, the newest from 2010. This will be a long read, so grab a coffee, or alternatively a pair of sunglasses and half a packet of cigarettes, and let’s hit it.

Q-Planes (1939)

Let’s jump right in with a film most people have never heard of. The reason I chose to start here is that it’s tangentially connected with the film that kicked off my love of cinema: the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights.

My parents (or rather, my mum, because she picked the presents) gave it to me for Christmas when I was probably about 12. I was still young enough to think that black-and-white films weren’t worth watching. I thought my mum had taken leave of her senses. But, reluctantly, I watched it, and immediately fell for Emily Bronte’s novel, and for Laurence Olivier, and was irrevocably won over to old films. So my mum must have known what she was doing after all.

Anyway, after that I scanned the TV times for more films with Olivier, setting them to record while I was at school, and that’s how I discovered this little gem. It’s basically a propaganda film, to boost people’s spirits at the start of the Second World War, but if exposure to Albanian communist cinema has taught me anything, it’s that just because a film has an agenda, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a good film in its own right.

Q-Planes is an spy/action film about dastardly saboteurs, but it’s also a sparky 1930s romance with a strong heroine, and it’s leavened with some light, very British humour. It’s a film in which the simple words “Goodbye, darling” can be a funny punchline, and then a moving callback a few scenes later. I may be alone in liking this film, but in that case, to almost quote it, I’m right, and the rest of the world is wrong.

The Princess Bride (1987)

I don’t want to completely alienate my audience, so after a film almost no one’s heard of, let’s move on to a film almost everyone loves. And why wouldn’t they love it? It’s “not just your basic, average, everyday, ordinary, run–of–the–mill, ho–hum fairy tale”, you know. And it’s inexhaustibly quotable. It’s one of those films where the “quotes” section on IMDB is basically the whole script.

I think I was introduced to this at university, having missed it as a child. It’s one of those films that found its audience through video, with friends giving impassioned recommendations which convinced you to try it where a synopsis wouldn’t. I saw The Shawshank Redemption the same way because, surprisingly, it didn’t do very well on initial release. Obviously, I like Shawshank too, but it didn’t make my idiosyncratic list.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

From the intentionally ridiculous, to the sublime. This is the only western on the list. There were far too many old westerns on TV on Saturday afternoons when I was growing up, and I found them a bit samey, but a good western can be very good. And this is a very good one.

The cast alone is a reason for seeing the film – Charles Bronson as a kind but deadly stranger, Henry Fonda playing against type as a sneering villain, and Claudia Cardinale carrying around so much earthy sensuality that she should be crushed under the weight. And there’s some really creative and effective camera work, too.

But it’s the music that makes this film for me. The score is by Ennio Morricone. Each main character has their own theme, and when the hero and villain finally face each other in defence of/aggression towards the heroine, their three themes reach a soaring climax. And there’s a point where one character’s music alone, or rather its abrupt termination, brings a lump to your throat. A visually and aurally gorgeous film.

Highlander (1985)

But if we can flip back to the ridiculous for a moment and visit a guilty pleasure, let’s do Highlander. The accents are terrible. The acting is OTT. The (final) love interest is unconvincing and unnecessary. The whole thing is bombastic and ridiculous.

But, but, but… I love this film. Really and truly love it. The music helps, of course, written specially for the film by Queen. And I’m not allergic to fantasy, as some are. And I like history, so the skipping about in time is fun.

But mostly it’s the central conceit: a man condemned to immortality, and everything that entails. Who wants to live forever? And the hero, although brave and competent, is vulnerable (emotionally and physically – he can still get hurt) and doesn’t really want the fight that’s waiting for him. That vulnerability, as with Kyle Reese in The Terminator, makes the whole thing a lot deeper and more affecting. Yes, I just called Highlander “deep” and “affecting”.

Magnolia (1999)

Now I quickly have to throw in something high-brow to balance out the last one, so here’s an arthouse film about a boy genius, a dying man trying to find his estranged son, an unlikely relationship between a crackhead and a policeman, and some very strange weather.

It’s one of those montage films, with a number of storylines that are all important. The acting in it is top notch. It was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s breakout film, Julianne Moore is heart-rending as the remorseful widow, and even Tom Cruise acts well in it. I don’t mean smiles winningly at all the right points, I mean genuinely acts. Watch it, if you don’t believe me.

Tom Cruise, as Frank, also has the best line in the film, one that at soon as you hear it, you squirrel away in your store of “quotes for future use”.

Journalist: What are you doing?
Frank: I’m quietly judging you.

The Slipper and the Rose (1976)

Since this list is in no particular order, we now come to what is probably my favourite film of all. This is the film that always cheers me up – raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens and this lush, colourful, witty musical version of Cinderella.

The score is by the Sherman brothers, who also did Mary Poppins and the Jungle Book, and it alternates between comic songs with joyously inventive lyrics (“Benevolent or nefarious, here is where they bury us!”) and touching romantic numbers.

The cast is fabulous, with some of the greats of British cinema in the older roles, a sweet Cinderella, and Richard Chamberlain, a huge star at the time, as the dashing Prince. The costumes are as gorgeous as you could wish, and the whole thing looks ravishing.

But what sets it apart is the realism with which it approaches the subject, despite all the magic and sparkle. After all, when it’s revealed that the fiancée of the sole heir of a poor and politically isolated country is actually local commoner, they won’t just be allowed to get married unopposed, will they? The final part of the film is all about what happens after the Prince finds the mystery girl, and a constitutional crisis ensues.

A Room with a View (1985)

Some films are always associated in your mind with a particular person. The Slipper and the Rose makes me think of my schoolfriend, Laura, who I think introduced me to it, and with whom I would sing all the songs from it. This film reminds me of my younger sister, because we first saw it together, sharing a hotel room while on holiday with our parents.

An advert came on the TV for A Room with a View. It wasn’t the official cinema trailer, it had been cut for whichever TV channel was showing it, and it was very effective. There were lush scenes of Italy, someone fainting, the kiss on the hillside (the crux of the film), and it finished with the line “You mean she never told you? What happened in Italy?” That was enough; we were intrigued and decided to watch, and we were glad we did.

It’s an E M Forster novel and a Merchant Ivory film, but with the Italian setting (for half the film) it’s much less stiff and formal than that might imply, and the buttoned up Englishness contrasts nicely with the messy beauty of Florence and the passion of George, the love interest, played by Julian Sands. Sands was a nice looking boy at the time, but the main thing to recommend him is his voice, which is like liquid moonlight. Worth watching just to hear him say “I never said I was,” but worth watching for lots of other reasons too.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Another one you may not have heard of. I like a bit of sci fi, the genre that tells you most about the fears and preoccupations of the time it was made. This is pure Cold-War paranoia, but (see my earlier point about films with agendas) none the worse for that.
The title pretty much tells you the plot (they weren’t much into cryptic titles in the 50s) but it explores a few different issues using this device.

It’s really three films in one: a story about a handsome, normal young couple facing with a mysterious health issue that puts a strain on their marriage; a film about a man coming to terms with a total change to his life, and being considered a freak; and an adventure story of man alone against hostile nature.

The hero’s predicament first emasculates and infantalises him, and then remasculates (I know, not a word) and invigorates him. And wait ‘til you see the final thrilling confrontation with a house spider the size of an elephant!

Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986)

It’s appropriate that we should have an 80s teen flick on the list, as it’s a genre I have a definite fondness for. But this isn’t a Brat Pack film, it’s a standalone treat without any of the usual suspects, apart from Charlie Sheen, who has a tiny but fun role as a stoned punk.

You probably already know the story – popular teenager Ferris Beuller fakes illness to take a day off, drive to New York in a borrowed sports car, and do lots of fun things with his cool girlfriend and nervous best friend. And while I don’t necessarily condone playing truant, he has a point that “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”

It’s a life-affirming film with lots of humour, some of it quite subtle, some about as subtle as a (literal) car wreck, plus a dance-around-the-living-room set piece at a New York carnival. It’s witty, escapist wish fulfillment – and who doesn’t sometimes need a bit of that?

The Bishops Wife (1947)

Although I started writing this ages ago, it’s now getting dangerously close to the Christmas season, so it seems appropriate to finish with my favourite Christmas film.

I discovered this film by chance one afternoon when I was decorating my first gingerbread house, and it was the perfect accompaniment, Christmassy in all the right ways. Films that have been on BBC usually stay on iPlayer for a year, so the following year when I came to make a slightly fancier gingerbread house, the film was still there to keep me company. And then my lovely nieces gave me the DVD, so last year I was able to watch it again while decorating a gingerbread castle. It has become a Christmas tradition for me. So has ever-more-ambitious gingerbread constructions, which is more of a problem.

The film is about a stressed bishop (David Niven) who is trying to raise funds for a magnificent cathedral, and an angel (Cary Grant! As an angel!) who is sent to ‘help’ him. He’s no use at all in raising funds for the cathedral, and the bishop is unconvinced by the ‘angel’ part, but he’s a lot of use at repairing the bishop’s relationships with his parishioners, his daughter, his staff, and especially his lonely, neglected young wife.

It’s Mary Poppins for grown-ups, essentially, with fewer songs (though there’s a choir at one point) and more ice skating. (One of the most joyous scenes in the film is when the angel and the bishop’s wife take a taxi driver skating.)

In some ways it’s similar to It’s a Wonderful life, where a man thinks he needs something (to get out of Bedford Falls, by suicide if necessary) and is shown by angelic intervention that what he really needs is something completely different – something he had all along, really, if he would only stretch out his hand. But whereas I hate It’s a Wonderful Life, and was appalled when the hero decided to stay in the nasty little town that he hates, I entirely agree with the lesson of the much more debonair angel in The Bishop’s Wife, that God is not glorified so much by fancy buildings as by love for our fellow men, and wives.

So that’s my top ten, as it stands at the moment. This is already extremely long, but if you still want more, here are…

The ones that didn’t quite make it

  • How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days (2003) was actually going to make it on to the top ten, until I discovered that I had 11 (counting is not one of my ‘core competencies’). A funny, sweet rom-com where the leads have genuine chemistry.
  • Arachnophobia (1990) an underappreciated gem with humour, beautiful theme music, Julian Sands’ dreamy voice (“I think I’ve discovered a new species of butterfly!”) and serious scares.
  • The Matrix (1999) was unutterably cool when it came out. My friends and I went to see it multiple times at the cinema, wearing our long black coats and pondering the many metaphors and mytho-religious allusions.
  • The Lost Boys (1987), an 80s teen flick that’s as silly as it is stylish. “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.”
  • Young Guns II (1990), the only sequel on the list because it’s better than the original. Great music, crazy horses and a young and gorgeous cast (Christian Slater, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Emilio Estavez). “I shall finish the game!”
  • Heartbreaker (2010) – no, not the Sigourney Weaver film (that’s Heartbreakers) but a French film about a professional romancer which will make you laugh so hard you’ll get a headache and possibly feel slightly sick. I mean that in a good way.

This then, is an edited list (yes, there are a good few that I left out because it was getting ridiculous – Four Lions, The Seven-Year Itch, Galaxy Quest – I could go on) of my top films. Feel free to agree, disagree or otherwise jump in by leaving a comment below.

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