OR if I curated a film festival this would be the programme
This is something I’ve meant to do for a long while. Films are inspiring for creative writers because apart from anything else they are good for illustrating what’s possible. As in “here are some ways that script writers solved tricky plot problems”. Also films inspire you with a mood, or a performance, and this inspiration can fuel your own ideas. Or it can send you off in new directions; sometimes you thought a film was going to go in a certain direction but didn’t, and so you might decide you want to go there on your own. Or they can teach you about the craft of film writing by picking them apart and seeing how they tick.
In any case. These are my “go to” movies, films I could watch on a loop all day and not tire of. And friends of mine will tell you I actually do sometimes do that. What’s a “go to” film? If you want to watch a film and you can’t decide what new things to watch, your “go to” films are always in reserve because you can watch them over and over again.
The words in CAPS are the core reason I think I like the flick. Okay, you ready? Roll the films.
Rear Window (1954)
When people ask me what are my favourite films, I usually take it to mean what are my favourite Hitchcock films because to me they are the same thing. This is just a representative nod to a man I consider the master of Cinema with a capital C. One of these days I’ll do my Desert Island Hitch for you. But for now let’s talk about Rear Window.
This is one of my “go to” films because it’s such a perfectly formed gem, an exercise, of which Hitch was so famously fond, in RESTRICTION. He sets the movie in an apartment in an enclosed courtyard where a photographer is bedridden with a broken leg. He gets visitors and he can see out of the apartment through the window, but he can’t leave. And neither can we. We see the entire film give or take, through this single window. Can you make a suspenseful film with such restrictions? That is the lesson of this film and why I find it so endlessly fascinating.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Luc Besson has made some of my favourite films, and although his French car chase and crime movies are his most popular, I like his sci-fi movie the best. It features Milla Jovovich as an artificial being created to save the world and Bruce Willis as the ex-special forces now taxi driver who falls into keeping her alive to complete her mission.
The MOOD of this piece is so startlingly vivid, the WORLD so fresh and alive. It’s a rich fully populated world with a history and myth, and it spans time and the stars. It’s a big story, but it’s told with clever and expensive but minimal effects, relying instead on solid almost intimate performances from the fabulous cast. It’s a hoot but it is also a well written, well acted and well directed piece of entertainment. And unusually everyone, the goodies and the baddies, are sympathetic and charismatic.
Day For Night (1973)
(Original French title: “La nuit américaine”)
The best film ever made about filmmaking, not just how it is done, but what it means to love it and want to do it. It’s a film about PASSION. This is the movie that made me want to make films, to be a part of that energy. Like a lot of François Truffaut films it’s sort of stylised, and a lot of the performances are overblown, but it still moves me with its intimate moments.
The characters have attitudes which we all have, they are fallible, contrary, sometimes deluded, sometimes noble. They are real three dimensional human beings with all their flaws and favours. It’s romantic, charming, annoying and beautiful and I watch it time after time.
Lots of people I know don’t like Woody Allen. They think he’s pretentious or passé, but they are really only looking at either the characters he plays or the later more navel gazing and less amusing films. I loved his comedies as a kid, and I especially like Manhattan.
As a 17 year old I was inspired by Woody Allen movies. He talked about relationships. He was an outsider who was clumsy with women but cared about them. Manhattan is the most ROMANTIC of his films in my view, because it’s about kidding yourself or trying to be something you think you ought to be. ANd then having the good sense to see when you’re wrong. It’s again a mood piece which never wears out, a perfect moment that never tarnishes for me or loses it’s excitement.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Another perfect moment, Curtis Hanson’s film about dope smoking writer and college lecturer Michael Douglas who meets and befriends outsider and writing student Toby McGuire. Again a supporting cast who could and have carried movies on their own, and lots of lovely writing and intimate realistic performances. And it’s a film about a writer, what more could you ask?
The main character is writing his followup novel and is taking a long time, not because he can’t get started but because he can’t stop. He’s avoiding making any decisions and writing about every detail. A cautionary tale indeed. It is very FUNNY but also TOUCHING. It’s also my favourite Michael Douglas performance of all time, and a reminder that when he’s good he’s very very good.
I love this film, once again because of the performances by a cast of experts at the top of their game. Plus the script just crackles along with witty lines and cool asides. In fact it is so well written that in my family at least it is the most QUOTABLE movie ever.
It doesn’t matter that the effects look so dated, or that the actors look so much younger than you are used to seeing them these days. The movie has a gleam in it’s eye all the way through, a little twinkle which lets you off the hook. The look says “look I know this is preposterous, we all do, but just stick with it, it’s going to be fun.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
One of the first movies I ever saw on VHS video tape. Also because it was on tape it was one of the first movies I watched on a loop all day. I know it inside and out. It’s one of the few movies I can recall thinking was a classic even when it came out. A classic in the sense that it was a perfect jewel, a sensitively crafted story with all the classic elements but mixed up a little to make it fresh.
So many movies latterly borrowed from it’s look and feel. So many more tried to be a successor. Tomb Raider springs to mind, National Treasure of course. But none can really match its unique CHARISMA. Harrison Ford is at his best, and Spielberg is too. The writing and the acting is all top of the line, the best that money can buy, and it shows. Crack the movie in two like a stick of rock and it will have QUALITY written right through it. If you want to learn how to write, plot, direct or act the perfect old fashioned action romp, look no further. Watching Raiders frame by frame is like a film school in a DVD.
The same can be said of Alien, it is almost a textbook on how to write and direct the perfect monster/slasher movie. But why this Ridley Scott movie here on the list and not his more famous one, Blade Runner? I liked Blade Runner and I know it’s significant, and it is much copied, but I think Alien was the better film.
Alien also had that iconic dirty used look that Blade Runner had, and it too influenced a generation of filmmakers and film consumers. I loved the mood and look, but most of all I loved the UNDERCURRENTS. There’s fear, there’s paranoia, there’s really creepy situations, but it’s all HIDDEN. You never see the creature completely till the end and even then not for very long. All you see up to then is bits here and there, glimpses. I’ve never forgotten that. The scariest effects always happen not on the screen but in your head.
Dr No (1962)
The first James Bond movie is a favourite for me, partly because I am a total James Bond nut, but also because it’s another one of those perfect moments. Dr No’s lair became not only the prototype mad scientist’s lair for all future Bond films but for lavish spy movies ever since. I like all the Bond films, like they were my children, some a little wayward, some a little bit camp, but all loved equally.
The first movie set the tone. It had charisma, it had quality, it had charm, it had really great actors. It also has oodles of STYLE. I can’t think of a more stylish film of the era. Although it is curiously enough not my favourite Bond film, that would be the new Casino Royale, it is in my top ten “go to” films because it always delivers, allowing me on demand to feed off its stylish, cosmopolitan jet-setting visuals like a hungry hyena.
Until the End of the World (1991)
(Original German title: “Bis ans Ende der Welt”)
The best till last. This is probably my favourite film ever. Expensive romp through every continent on Earth, two movies in one, long incomprehensible and totally gripping film which you have to watch over and over to see if you can hold it in your memory for longer than a few days. This movie is another one of those film schools in a can. A woman who is roaming Europe in 1999 trying to find herself finds instead a rogue scientist on the run from people he stole a very special camera from. There is looming danger and a time limit to their quest as a nuclear satellite is falling out of the sky any day.
Originally released in a 158 minute version, the director Wim Wenders took it back and put back in all the footage he took out and made three separate 90 minute films, part 1, 2 and 3. It’s a marathon and something you couldn’t do regularly, but it’s a feast for the eyes, the ears and the mind. The soundtrack features tracks by musicians of the time, U2, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave etc. The score is a haunting blend of string quartet cues and ethnic music from around the world. It’s a SPELLBINDING film and worth persisting with even if you initially think it’s rubbish. I love all the technology they predicted for the future and how well it stands up today, including wifi, electric cars, iPads, search engines and satnav. I recommend watching the normal length 158 minute version and working up to the three part Director’s Cut once you’ve cut your teeth on the original theatrical version. It’s a taste worth acquiring.
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