“He seduces you,” says one corner of the cinematic triangle of Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats, referring to another corner. There are plenty of films about love, friendship, and love and friendship, but Dolan’s second film, about two friends in love with the same guy, does an impressive thing that few of those films can do: articulate the exact feelings of love and heartbreak through cinematic form. Several films capture moments of love, perhaps even recreate scenes easily identifiable, but the actual emotion itself is hard to render. Wordless, invisible feelings are rendered nearly tangible and very palpable on the screen. The film seems to bleed emotion.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teenager who is fairly introverted will go through a lengthy awkward phase when transitioning from middle school to high school, and thus must be in want of some friends. From personal experience, the transition is hardly easy, but for Charlie in the novel and film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was even worse. Written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999, I fell in love with the young adult novel, told in a delicate epistolary form, in my freshman year of high school and a friend told me the protagonist reminded her of me. Its author went on to write the screenplay and direct the feature film adaptation, and what he presents is a satisfying adaptation that is nuanced enough to make a difference in the plethora of teen films, changing the story a little bit. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a different teen film because of its refreshing approach to the pains of adolescence.
Perks tells the story of a young man who enters his freshman year of high school and has, well, a lot to deal with. Charlie (Logan Lerman) has spent some time in a mental institution after his best friend committed suicide, and his introverted nature makes the transition far harder. He stands by the side and observes. He “doesn’t think anybody noticed” him. The focus here is not finding him the perfect girlfriend, but finding him a perfect band of misfits; people who will be there for him. Because, unlike the myriad of films in the teen canon, high school is not all about finding the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend: it’s about finding the people who help you find who you are. Perks, as trite as it can be, presents this very aspect of learning well.
As someone who was deeply attached to the novel, I, of course, was hesitant as to the film adaptation’s treatment of the material, both from a standpoint in terms of accuracy as well as to framework and content. So, I was naturally surprised to learn that the man behind the novel wrote and directed the film. If he’s happy with this, then it will be his vision. But rather than spend my time comparing the book and the film constantly, I’ll only go over a few things and their translation onto the screen.
Part of the uniqueness of the book, I suppose, is its epistolary format, with Charlie writing to someone we never meet. This is retained to some extent as the initial framework, but, more importantly, the narration is not a constant. This gives the film a slightly more objective look than the book, but completely. Much of the film’s events and experiences are still presented subjectively, one particular scene almost reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
One of the highlights of the films is its occasional subtlety. Although the film may at times feel heavy handed, which may partly be responsible due to both the general “genre” the film falls in as well as the current atmosphere amongst teenagers. The novel handled certain questionable and dramatic subject matter and content very well, and its translation to the screen often thrives fluidly. The issues that Charlie has dealt with, as well as the subject of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his sexuality, are handled almost in an elegant manner. Charlie’s problems are never dressed so directly that they seem redundant, and Patrick is never overtly mentioned as gay. Both character are as they are.
That said, some of the subtlety, as brisk and well allocated as it may be, over compensates for itself in certain moments. Character development is sometimes sacrificed at trying to either be subtle or completely avoid subjects. Thus, for novel loyalists, certain scenes involving Charlie and Patrick are mentioned one moment, but never exactly elaborated upon. It is almost as if the thought was incomplete. These mistakes seem somewhat infantile, almost as much as some of the heavy handedness of certain scenes, but I suppose they are forgivable for a first time director.
The choices made, though, manage to be wise. The cinematography in the film, in particular, is one of the small beauties of the film. Soft focus and soft lighting make the film look almost misty and romantic, and fits at moments because the image will become as misty as your eyes. This small beauty of the film manages to accentuate much of the emotion in the film, perhaps setting it apart from many teen films. There is, therefore, equal balance and focus on the look of the film (which is distinctly 1990s) and the story of the film.
That said, the way the film portrays its story is, for the most part, successful. Aside from the strides of too much subtlety or too much heavy handedness (You have to admit that Chbosky’s dialogue hasn’t exactly aged well), the film nicely takes a different route regarding adolescent angst. There is far more reliance on Charlie being able to find a support system in the form of honest to God, true friends. His romantic fixation on Sam (Emma Watson) or with anyone else is not nearly as important as his ability to make friends with people.
The performances are one of the best things the film has to offer, with Lerman, Watson, and Miller giving extraordinary performances. Lerman presents himself as awkward and self-conscious without giving way to becoming Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg. There’s a beautiful vulnerability and lucidity that Lerman gives that makes him Charlie. More than I could have imagined (I was a skeptic early on), Lerman renders one of the best performances in this kind of film, looking like a more sympathetic Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. And in a lot of ways, the best parts of the film owe a lot to Francois Truffaut’s angsty masterpiece. It may be the 400 Blows for “my generation” (as much as I hate using that phrase). Emma Watson continues to expand her repertoire as Sam, also providing a lovely vulnerability. (A note on her accent: It’s convincing and merely sounds like she’s been living in the United States for a few years.) Everyone is lauding Miller for his role, and, sure, he was great. I was not as mesmerized as everyone else (I was more satisfied with Lerman’s performance), but Miller was undoubtedly good.
Stephen Chbosky’s successful young adult novel translates to the screen as a successful teen film. Its uniqueness in approach, concentrating on the protagonist’s issues with acquiring a support system, and does so well enough that it deserves to sit next to any John Hughes film on the teen canon. Its refined look and subtlety make it, in some respects, a Truffaut-esque film (perhaps similar to the also lovely, if underseen Submarine). What Perks does best is simply be itself, much like its characters. Subtle and sweeping, Perks observes the innocuous anomalies in teen life without to succumbing to too much trite material. To be completely reductive and a little corny, somewhat like the film, Perks works.
Welcome to the penultimate installment of my top 101 favorite films of all time. Here, you’ll see: not shiny vampires, heists and cons, extreme Asians, adult fairy tales, war, black and white and color, the magic of film, the magic of romance, nostalgia, voyeurism, games, subverted tropes, a game of Chess, sleepy theater projectionists, all fun and no play, and the film that did what Breathless could not.
61. Nosferatu (1927) | Directed by F.W. Murnau
Murnau’s notorious illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a stylish, creepy film that practically invented the horror film as we know it. Twilight can go suck it, for it’s Max Schrek’s Count Orlock that’s the original cinematic vampire. With gorgeous cinematography, despite it being very expressionistic, what Murnau did differently was he filmed on location much of the time. There’s still a warped sense of humor and horror behind each wall, and the shadows play tricks on the mind, as every haunted house should. Murnau’s horror film is unrivaled for its originality and technical experimentation.
62. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) | Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh created his own Rat Pack with a remake of the ‘60s heist film. Gathering some of the biggest stars of the time, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and George Clooney, Soderbergh creates a very memorable and stylish heist movie that would change Hollywood heist movies forever. Soderbergh’s strength is that he is able to balance a labyrinthine plot with marvelous technical mastery. The director utilizes auteuristic techniques for what many would consider a fairly mainstream effort. Its inventive cinematography, the colorful palette reminiscent of Sin City, and the huge cast are all high points of the film. Regardless of how derivative a film may look just by a trailer or synopsis, when you have Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, all bets are off.
63. Oldboy (2004) | Directed by Park Chan-wook
The Korean crime noir sky rocketed the Asian Extreme movement to fame in the United States. Oldboy is, for one reason or another, absolutely infamous as a super violent, super gratuitous, and superbly written horror movie. Only one of those things is correct. Winner of the Grand Prix Jury Award at Cannes, the film, like I said, has its origins in film noir, with its first person narration and the fragmented memories. Is the film violent? Sure, but it is hardly as shocking as people make it out to be. Is it a horror film? Not at all. Violence does not a horror movie make. Park Chan-wook is actually quite skilled at leaving most of the violence to suggestion. Quick cuts and great editing aid the effect, actually making the scenes more visceral than graphic violence could have ever done it. The film is grittier and darker than the other films of Chan-wook’s thematic Vengeance Trilogy, but it remains incredibly effective nonetheless. Oldboy is one of the most incredible experiences to ever see, and you won’t see the ending coming.
64. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro’s adult fairy tale is a dream and a nightmare all at once. Using traditional elements from mythology and children’s fairy tales, Guillermo Del Toro fashions a political and moral allegory that only become more interesting with each subsequent viewing. There are a lot of things to love about this film, from its acting, its cinematography, etc., but what I like most about it is the visual realization of a completely different world. Though it takes place around the time of the Spanish Civil War, the world that Del Toro creates is a unique vision that incorporates many familiar elements. The visual symbolism adds depth to the film (such as the ever frequent Rule of Three). The end is heartbreaking and startlingly real. In this film, Del Toro proves that he is a well read, and skillful director, capable of creating his own world in film.
65. Paper Moon (1973) | Directed by Peter Bogdonavich
Bogdonavich is better known for his realistic portrayal of lost teens in the midst of the Korean War in The Last Picture Show, but his Depression-era tale of a con artist and the partner in crime who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter is the most fun. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum, make the perfect team, and it is almost frightening to see such a young girl who can keep her father on her toes, both within in the film as a con artist and in terms of the acting. The gorgeous black and white photography and the jovial soundtrack are juxtaposed against the dark setting of the film. But worry not, this film is funny. With a hilarious turn from Madeline Khan, Paper Moon is a funny and sweet look at a slightly dysfunctional family.
66. Paths of Glory (1957) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
What I would surmise as the greatest anti-war film ever made, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory would set up a recurring theme that would be featured throughout his career, including Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. Portraying war as a machine that breaks down and destroys men, Paths of Glory is the story of a group of men in the French military in WWI who are sent on a suicide mission, but when they refuse and return unsuccessful and alive, they are accused of cowardice. Part film about war, part court drama, and all riveting emotional commentary on war, Kirk Douglas gives a brilliant performance and Kubrick eloquently and masterfully directs the most powerful message against war ever made.
67. Pleasantville (1998) | Directed by Gary Ross
TV in the 1950’s was quaint and retained a façade of family values. It was clean family fun. When the world is disrupted with reality in the form of art that challenges the norm for creativity, sex that challenges social values, and ideological changes, the transition is not smooth. But Pleasantville, with its brilliant use of color and black and white, presents a very real problem in the world today: acceptance of change. The people of the TV show within the film, a hybrid of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, amongst others, are xenophobic and closed minded and incredibly use to routine (and terrible jokes). That changes when two teenagers from the real world are sucked into the TV and trapped. It starts off as a very quaint, funny film, but moves into being a serious commentary on society’s perceptions of others. Incredibly clever and visually astonishing, Pleasantville finds new relevance with each viewing.
68. The Prestige (2006) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
The man behind Memento and The Dark Knight Trilogy returned to his psychedelic roots after Batman Begins with this mind bogglingly perfect metaphor about the beauty and pain of filmmaking. Nolan takes sleight of hand seriously, and throughout the film, literally, as two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) go at it by trying to one up each other in their respective acts. Not only that, they also, you know, like ruining one another’s lives. But it’s all a magic trick. Through the three phases of the magic trick, the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige, Nolan creates an incredible illusion for the audience. The bottom line of The Prestige: everything about film is magic.
69. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) | Directed by Woody Allen
What could be lovelier than the story of a woman who is in love with the movies falling for a man who jumps right off the screen to court her? The answer is nothing. Although director Woody Allen intended the film to be a lot more “esoteric” than it turned out, highlighting how disappointing reality can be and how much more appealing fantasy is, The Purple Rose of Cairo is quite frothy and intelligent at the same time. One of the few films of Allen’s to explore fantasy (the other being Midnight in Paris), Jeff Daniels does a superb job playing the handsome and naïve screen character, an archeologist, and the rising star who plays the archeologist. Mia Farrow takes on the role of the neurotic, and does so splendidly. Full of wit and romance, it’s the best thing a film lover, and one who frequently falls in love with fictional characters, could ever imagine.
70. Radio Days (1987) | Directed by Woody Allen
Often compared to Fellini’s Amarcord, Woody Allen’s slice of nostalgia is one of his best films. Narrated by Allen and illustrating a wonderfully romanticized past through various episodes and vignettes, Radio Days is a beautifully fun portrait of the past. Allen would explore the power of nostalgia later again in Midnight in Paris, but it seems more light hearted here. Yes, that’s a very young Seth Green portraying a young Allen. Radio Days is fun and captures the world of a romantic remembering the best times of his childhood perfectly.
71. Rango (2011) | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard that, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
72. Rear Window (1954) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock, I like to think, not only enjoyed scaring audiences and leaving their stomach in knots from tension, but also enjoyed challenging the audience as much as any auteur likes to. In Rear Window, he makes the audience complicit in voyeurism. James Stewart is the photographer stuck up in his apartment in a wheel chair with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors that live across from him. When he suspects one of them for murder, well, you know what happens next. It’s typically suspenseful for a Hitchcock film, but it really engages the mind in ethical decisions. To what extent are we just as guilty as Stewart in the voyeurism? (This technique would also find relevance in Michael Haneke’s Caché.) And were he/we not watching, would this man have gotten away with murder? It’s those kinds of questions that make Rear Window such a compelling thriller.
73. The Red Balloon (1965) | Directed by Albert Lamorisse
Lamorisse’s short film is a glorious, lighter than air ode to childhood. In a small world where balloons have a life of their own, the pure joy and gaiety of the film make it one of the most delightful gifts film has to offer. The photography is sweet and captures the saccharine mood perfectly. Perfectly tender and heartfelt, The Red Balloon is a pleasure.
74. Saw (2004) | Directed by James Wan
While it may have ushered a new wave of horror movies under the sub-genre “torture porn”, James Wan’s debut feature Saw is actually a smartly written and taut psychological thriller. The film lingers more on the ethical decisions than the final results of the “games”, and is reliant on a fairly clever nonlinear narrative. The twists and turns in the story are convincing in this film, and, though it gave birth to many a sequel offspring, its ending isn’t so ambiguous that it called for any of the sequels. Although the acting is stale and overwrought (I blame Cary Elwes), it is sustainable primarily on its script. Saw is actually a very chilling film.
75. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) | Directed by Edgar Wright
While I was never much into video games or comic books, even one mildly acquainted with the style of 8-bit games and panel to panel comics should love Scott Pilgrim. The film’s visual inventiveness is one of the best things about it, recreating the same tone and sound effects one would find in a classic arcade game. Therefore, arcade and comic in jokes abound. The film also delivers script wise, featuring a wildly clever screenplay with fast paced dialogue, as well as a very fun soundtrack. While Michael Cera may feel comfortable, at times too comfortable, in his awkward archetype, here it suits him well without being insufferable. There’s a certain amount of deluded confidence in his character which makes his role funnier. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the love interest Ramona, and she gives her character some nice depth and a sense of vulnerability. Scott Pilgrim is a fun and wild ride, a game you’ll want to play again, long after your coins have run out.
76. Scream (1996) | Directed by Wes Craven
Horror started getting postmodern and incredibly aware of itself when Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson brought Scream to the screen. While at once parodying and revitalizing the once dead and dying slasher genre, Williamson’s sharp screenplay and Craven’s tight directing brought horror to the forefront once again. Playing on the tropes that were so very well known, Craven and his gang set up the rules to a successful franchise, and made his film a call for smarter horror films. The allusions and humor run rampant throughout the film. And it forever immortalized the single best question to ask around Halloween: “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
77. The Seventh Seal (1957) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
If you’ve heard me complain about Godard’s sledgehammer approach to philosophy, the filmmaker I immediately run to escape that is Ingmar Bergman. Capable of moving an audience and conveying his deep personal thoughts on life and death without bashing you in the face with a shovel, the perfect example of his technique is The Seventh Seal. Fantastically atmospheric, with moments of witty humor, Bergman’s bleak film about the meaning of life and death is both entertaining and without a doubt one of the most philosophically deep films ever made. It gives a whole new meaning to “Do you want to play a Game?”
78. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Directed by Buster Keaton
Bringing together a love of film and magic, Sherlock Jr. is probably Keaton’s most entertaining film, and undoubtedly his funniest. Some of his most enjoyable stunts are in this film, but the most magical sequence in silent cinema is in Sherlock Jr. After falling asleep at the projector, Keaton finds himself jumping into the screen and his environment changes from one place, to another, his body forcing itself to adapt. It’s one of the cleverest scenes ever made, especially within the silent era. And Sherlock Jr. is one of the most delightful films from the era as well.
79. The Shining (1980) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The Shining is a crazy amalgam of horror, suspense, chills, psychoanalysis, metaphor, and truly disturbing images. While there is much to analyze about the film, on a purely visceral level, it’s one of the scariest films ever made. Nicholson is perfect as the mad patriarch Jack Torrence, while Shelley Duvall is sadly underrated in a brilliant performance as his long suffering wife. The brutal shoot took a toll on the actors, which make their performances all the stronger. Kubrick’s stylish and skillful direction is all over the film, for, what is it more than Kubrick doing horror? It’s almost unbelievable the mileage Kubrick gets from this film, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats at all times. There’s never a dull moment in The Shining.
80. Shoot the Piano Player (1960) | Directed by François Truffaut
Sure, Godard can play the tribute game too, and while everyone likes to attribute Breathless as the film that shaped the New Wave, it’s Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player that did it too, and did it enjoyably. The comedy is deadpan, the action ripped from Hollywood noirs, and the romance believable and naturalistic. It’s so convincing in its adoration for Hollywood movies that it, at times, feels like a Hollywood gangster film simply made by a Frenchman. Truffaut’s film is a loving tribute to the films that inspired him.
Creating a “definitive” list of your favorite 101 films is a task unto itself, and one that I spent many hours compiling and weeping about. Only those who have also made similar lists know what it feels like to take off one of your favorites in order to fit the constraint of 101. I do have a larger, more random list, but, like most people, I was prompted to do this with the recent release of Sight and Sound’s 50 Greatest. The films that follow may not be the greatest, but they are most definitely my favorites. From the hilarious to the somber, to the “I want to go kill myself”; I think every film on the list has something to recommend it. Every film has a special place in my heart and I have unforgettable memories sparked by these films. I suppose the best way I can describe this list is the best of my favorite written like an objective list. Sort of. I hope this list sparks a little debate and some conversation! (The films are listed in alphabetical order, but the ones in bold would be in my top 10.)
- 12 Angry Men/Anatomy of a Murder (1957/1959) | Directed by Sidney Lumet/Otto Preminger
It probably goes without saying that 12 Angry Men and Anatomy of a Murder are the essential courtroom films. Lumet’s film deal exclusively in real time, studying the dozen men of the title and their motivations. Their personal ethics are on trial for the audience as they themselves must decide the fate of a young man on trial for murder. Lumet’s masterful direction and the tight, often claustrophobic cinematography center in less on the case itself than who these men are as people. Meanwhile, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is like the best episode of Law & Order times one hundred, with more focus on the latter. Taking you through nearly the entire process of a trial, and its noir0ish tendencies forcing the audience to question the legitimacy of, once again, the ethics of the cast of characters, Preminger sets the stage for a slow burning but hot mystery. Both are on a similar subject, yet handle the matters differently; with the former concentrating on the ethics of the men who will play god and the latter on the ethics of those on trial.
- The 400 Blows (1959) | Directed by François Truffaut
When one of his mentors challenged him to make a film since he had such a bad reputation as being an incredibly harsh critic, Truffaut’s first feature, and one of the first of the nouvelle vague, made him the John Hughes of the era. Adolescent angst tends to look really foolish and preposterous on screen, but Truffaut tackles the melodramatic woes and misfortunes of his protagonist, Antoine Doinel, with sympathy and nostalgia. This may partly because that Doinel, played excellently by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the events in the film are heavily based on events and experiences that occurred in the auteur’s early life. And like John Hughes, Truffaut is able to present normally ridiculous and unsympathetic actions on the screen so that, without making Doinel seem like a martyr, the audience can gain insight into how the angsty adolescent feels. Certain lines resonate with any kid who has told a lie or tried to make their parents proud and failed. The adults around Doinel are not, surprisingly, made out to be monsters, but simply strict adults who, like in reality, may sometimes lose touch with who they once were. Truffaut’s touching film is the perfect coming-of-age story.
- A Christmas Story (1983) | Directed by Bob Clark
Based on memoir-esque essays by the film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is one of the most perfect slices of nostalgia to ever grace the screen. Taking place sometime in the 1930s in the Midwest, the only thing little Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with all the fancy accessories. One kid’s quest because our delight. Its quaint, fun period setting and detail, and the nature of narrative structure make the film incredibly fun to watch. Told in vignette-style episodes, each segment really seems to be a slice from Ralphie’s life. It seems that, rather than assume the duty of creating a very long arc and narrative to what would, undeniably, be a far less interesting film, the episodic style makes the actions more quick paced, reminiscent of old sitcoms and radio shows. Were they to ever adapt David Sedaris’ work to the screen, they should look no farther than A Christmas Story.
- Alien/Aliens (1979/1986) | Directed by Ridley Scott/James Cameron
Alien and its sequel Aliens are very different films, but both are equally entertaining. While simultaneously nearly inventing the modern sci-fi film and subverting it in the same breath, Alien is, at its core, a haunted house movie with a crew aboard a ship that also contains a large monster. It combines the older clichés of that subgenre, recalling some stylings of Vincent Price, yet its characters aren’t always stupid. This is a nice change. Some very memorable thrills occur in Alien. Its sequel is different in tone and style, with James Cameron at the helm and his “no holds barred” style coming with him. More overtly an action movie, Aliens is more “exciting” than its predecessor, but that is merely because of the style change. All the while, the two films present curious ideas regarding pregnancy, birth, and feminism under the first layer of skin. As they say, though, in space, no one can hear you scream.
- Annie Hall (1977) | Directed by Woody Allen
Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s most obvious change in style, as he had slowly transitioned from “joke after joke” in Love and Death. This film, though, presents Allen not only as the comic, but as the artist. Using humor to illustrate the nuances in a relationship, Allen surprisingly allows us to get to know Alvy Singer and Annie Hall intimately. Despite the film being told mainly from his perspective, we become connected to Singer’s amour as well. The non-linear style aids this and accentuates those nuances. Eternal Sunshine would copy this method of retracing a relationship through memories, but in a way, Annie Hall does it, if not exactly better or more effectively, then just differently. The lack of straightforward linearity is the reproduction of memory, jumping to the moments that stand out to you the most in no particular order. The breaking of the fourth wall seems to prove it: Annie Hall is a walk down memory lane.
- Army of Shadows (1969) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
While better known for his gangster films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s WWII neo-noir is an intricately plotted escape plan, drawn up to thrill like any of his other films. The difference between this and, say, Le Cercle Rouge, is that a real emotional connection is made. The dark palette and tenseness of the film drives the viewer to the edge of their seat, rooting for every character in the Resistance to get away. It’s a shattering film about the dangers of political resistance, as well a triumph of personal beliefs and heroism.
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) | Directed by Frank Capra
Amongst the first films I ever watched, Arsenic and Old Lace holds a very special place in my heart. Theater critic Mortimer Brooster’s two old aunts invite old, lonely men into their home and poison them, burying them in the basement. These goodhearted, decidedly Christian women are kind of like Dr. Kevorkian, but for the old and lonely. Mortimer’s older brother, who would have made both Boris Karloff and Jeffrey Dahmer proud, comes home one night and, as one would guess, antics ensue. Playing with primarily one set and the conventions of comedies and mysteries, Capra’s screwball comedy is listless and fun. The journalistic roots of Cary Grant’s character (who is, unshockingly, perfect) present an opportunity for the film to subvert certain filmic elements in a self-aware way. It isn’t meta-humor exactly, but it understands what it’s parodying. The wonderful John Alexander’s perfect portrayal as Teddy (Mortimer’s other brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt) is so pitch perfect, it would end up impacting my personal political views.
- La Belle et la Bête (1946) | Directed by Jean Cocteau
If I tell people that one of my favorite films is Beauty and the Beast, I always have to annotate my statement with “I mean the Jean Cocteau one”. For this majestic adaptation makes singing teapots and dancing clocks seem quaint and even, gasp, dated. Cocteau was one of cinema’s greatest magicians, and his camera tricks are gorgeous to see on the screen. Far more reliant on the older German version of the tale than the Disney film was, Cocteau’s splendid adaptation makes the Beast seem more human than ever. This is a tale of unrequited love and reflections of the human spirit. I think it was Greta Garbo who exclaimed, upon the Beast turning into the handsome prince, “Give me back my Beast!” It’s that kind of beauty that fills the screen and fills our hearts.
- Being John Malkovich (1999) | Directed by Spike Jonze
I often credit Jonze and screenwriter extraordinaire’s head trip for helping me grasp the concept of “existentialism”. For what else is this film other than trying to understand one’s self by experiencing it through another’s body? The film is genius visually, conceptually, every way. With unrecognizable John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, the lines are fast and smart and the concepts tricky yet entertaining. Spike Jonze’s music video sensibility does not, contrary to assumption (and a little thing called Chaos Editing), hinder the film’s artistry but enhance it. It is not cut to music but the beats of action, mood, and dialogue. It’s visually inventive (“Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich…”), complex, and thoroughly entertaining.
- Bicycle Thieves (1948) | Directed by Vittorio De Sica
De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece rolled in that wave of films that look at the harsh realities of the common people. The simple storyline of a man who is finally able to get a job, but has the bike he needs for it stolen is more heartbreaking than you could ever imagine. Is it the fact that, as most neorealist films would do, the film used nonprofessional actors, making the tragedy more real? Is it the cinematography, with the frame always tight with the social problems of Italy, that makes the film compelling? Or the angelic face of young Bruno, who must grow up in the conditions, allowing all the motion in the film to pour out of his cherubic eyes? Bicycle Thieves is a tearjerker without the melodrama, something that feels real and painful and undoubtedly one of the most incredible films ever made.
- The Big Lebowski (1996) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
There are few things as memorable as Jeff Bridges as The Dude. And there are few films as quotable as the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (“Vagina.”). The Coens’ ear for dialogue, eye for scene construction, and sensibility for story dominate the film. This wildly unique neo-noir takes its plot loosely from the classic noir The Big Sleep, but its endlessly colorful cast of characters is the best thing on display. The dialogue in particular is the most interesting thing about the film. Combining surfer/stoner/slacker vernacular with articulately constructed lingo, it’s commonplace to hear phrases throughout the film like “Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian–American, please”. The Coens bowl a perfect set with this one.
- Black Swan (2010) | Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Part intimate character study, part psychological thriller, and part art house horror film, Darren Aronofsky’s enigmatic Black Swan is all enthralling. With the strains of obsession and quest of perfection found in The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue, Aronofsky’s ode to those who would willingly go insane for their art is chilling and intriguing. Natalie Portman’s childish and virginal Nina is contrasted by her understudy Lily, darker and more elusive. Revolving around a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Portman and Mila Kunis represent the respective swans in the ballet, Portman’s quest to be able to emulate and portray both with Kunis out of her way. Aronofsky’s presentation, with mirrors all around and various tipoffs to Nina’s character, is exemplary. The handheld cinematography forces the viewer to see the events from Nina’s point of view, making Nina’s descent into insanity more thrilling and chilling. It’s a grand film, with a gorgeous score from Clint Mansell. For Nina, her experiences can be summed up in an exchange from the classic The Red Shoes: “Why do you want to dance?” “Why do you want to live?”
- Blue Valentine (2010) | Directed by Derek Cianfrance
There are few films as heart wrenching as Derek Cianfrance’s portrait of a romance, from its beginning to its end. Realism takes a front seat here, to an extent that much of the dialogue was improvised and the film’s stars even lived together for a month. Every frame of every scene seems genuine, which makes the experience of watching the film even more romantic and subsequently crushing. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are absolutely incredible. Their chemistry, making love or arguing violently, is palpable. With its story overlapping with memories, the past and the present have distinctly different looks. Blue Valentine doesn’t feel like film at all; merely the portrait of two people who fall in love and fall out of love.
- Brick (2005) | Directed by Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir is unlike any high school movie you’ll ever see. Everything is pulled straight from the classic film noirs of the Pre-Code Era and even the dialogue is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammet. Johnson, though, is no fool. Though his plot is complex and his intention is to reinvent both the neo-noir and the high school movie together, he knows that just making it like a labyrinth and having funky lines won’t be enough. Brick is just as inspired visually as it is in literary terms. And while this is Johnson’s first film, he handles the material like a pro, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt perfectly fit as a high school hooky playing amateur gumshoe. Brick turns out to be a fascinating appropriation of those classic noir techniques set in high school, without the gimmick and with all of the thrill.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935) | Directed by James Whale
Yes, Whale’s Frankenstein brought German Expressionism to American horror, and yes, it was good, but it didn’t have the heart and soul of Bride of Frankenstein (which may or may not be a tad ironic). Although mob mentality and the psyche of a mad scientist are explored in Frankenstein, no attempt is given to understand the Monster. Here, not only does the Monster demand a mate, he demands to be understood. James Whale offers up a perfect examination of the kindness that can lie within the Monster’s heart. (There were bits shown in Frankenstein, though not to this extent.) Elsa Lanchaster’s iconic scream and Karloff’s reaction shot with the words, “She hates me” is one of the most memorable scenes in film history. Bride of Frankenstein works incredibly as the study of the monster and his broken heart.
- Bringing Up Baby* (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
I’m fortune enough that arguably the first film I ever saw just so happens to be an incredibly funny work of genius. Yep, the insane work of comedy was one of the very first films I ever watched. Howard Hawks’ screwball masterpiece will always unfailingly take the cake for my favorite film of all time. Sexual innuendo permeates the dialogue, and there’s always a sense of the battle between the sexes underneath all of the shenanigans. Once again, we have an incredible director subverting clichés, and in this case, romantic comedies. Though, this is the definitive romantic comedy, starring Cary Grant as a wonderfully naïve paleontologist and Katherine Hepburn as the waify socialite who falls madly in love with him and follows him around. This film was ravaged when it was first released, but has reestablished itself as a gem. Although the situations are familiar, their familiarity to the audience is deliberate, Hawks playing with what we know about romance. With some of the best line deliveries of all time (“I just turned GAY all of a sudden!”), and nary a dull moment, Bringing Up Baby is one of the funniest films ever made and my favorite film of all time.
- Burn After Reading (2008) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
While the plot is knowably a little complex, the sadly underrated Burn After Reading is in a way Fargo Lite. It received mix to positive reviews upon its release, perhaps because it was so drastically different in tone to the previous Brothers Coen film, Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. Nay, do not let that detract from seeing it! The familiar air of dark comedy is mixed with noir-ish espionage. And once again, it’s the cast and the script that shines. John Malkovich as a crazy ex-CIA agent and Brad Pitt as a dimwitted personal trainer are the highlights. As buffoonish as nearly everyone is in the film, it sheds an interesting light on the nature of surveillance and that, in this world, secrets never stay that way forever.
- Cabaret (1972) | Directed by Bob Fosse
Based loosely on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Cabaret is one of the greatest musicals ever made. It seems to be post-modern in its approach, almost shocking for a musical. While songs generally express the feelings of characters on stage, the song and dance numbers at the Kit Kat Club are utilized specifically to reflect the events of the play and the mirroring social and political atmosphere. The looming threat of Nazis is always in the air, and no musical sequence dares to detract from that aspect. In fact, those sequences are there expressly for that purpose: to remind you of that threat and fear. The Kit Kat Club is a fantasy in which all the players’ lives, the players representing the countries in World War II, are mocked on stage. Joel Grey gives an electric performance as the sinister Emcee at the club, his sweetly romantic “If You Could See Her” ending with the lines, “…she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!” But, come to the Cabaret, old chum!
- The Cabin in the Woods (2012) | Directed by Drew Goddard
It’s nice when people who like the same kind of movies, in this case horror, you like come to the same conclusion as you have: they’re getting dull and predictable. In one of the most original horror movies in recent memory, Drew Goddard and Joss “King of All the Fanboys” Whedon came together to pen a script which subverted the horror genre and its clichés even further than Wes Craven’s Scream did in 1996. Spoilerific though it may be, the film explores why we love carnage, and not in that obnoxiously pretentious way that Funny Games did. Clearly, the filmmakers like horror just as much as the audience does, and enough to want to serve up something new. Featuring a stellar cast, great comedy, and shocking moments, The Cabin in the Woods is the perfect horror film for the meta-humor age.
- Casablanca* (1942) | Directed by Michael Curtiz
How can anyone not love Casablanca? The best representative of the collaborative process of filmmaking, especially in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Casablanca is one of the greatest love stories ever set in celluloid. Political allegories notwithstanding, it’s the love story that captures everyone’s hearts across generations. Bogart’s outward bitterness and internal romanticism, Bergman’s effervescent beauty, and the doomed love between them are captivating for every second. The darkly lit cinematography, the atmospheric music, and the performances are splendid. It may be the greatest love story ever in film. There’s no need to tell us, “You must remember this”, because everyone who loves a good romance will without asking.