|Out of the Past
|High and Low
|The Heartbreak Kid
|Don't Look Now
|Brian De Palma
|Synecdoche, New York
|Under the Skin
Lang's futuristic, expressionistic, operatic, romantic epic was, he admitted, politically naïve. But the politics are the least of it - the film's torrent of incredible and much-imitated imagery, aligned to its wild Freudian themes, is nothing less than an explosion of pure id onto the screen. Viewed as such, its absurdity is not a weakness, but a source of great strength. From its catacombs to its penthouses, Metropolis is the city of dreams.
Out of the Past
In the contest for the greatest film noir, Out of the Past will forever be my fighter. Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer are each superb in a doomy yet playful riff on the quintessential noir themes of chance, destiny, power and doom. Perhaps you prefer the punchy editing of Kiss Me Deadly, or the savage anger of The Big Heat? Baby, I don't care.
High and Low
The great masterpiece of all Kurosawa's contemporarily-set pictures. On every level - the social, the psychological, the moral, and as a thriller - it succeeds. Its portrayal of the debt we must owe to each other to live in a functioning, humane society is guided by a deep moral rigour and empathic humanism, conveyed by Toshiro Mifune playing against type as a thrusting corporate executive on the make. Though filming once again in black and white, Kurosawa does add a vital dash of colour - a playful coup de théâtre that acts as the smoky pink cherry on the cake.
The Heartbreak Kid
Elaine May's infernal anti-romcom is the great American cringe comedy. This look into the void at the heart of the 'pursuit of happiness' is excruciating and yet… it’s just so funny. Charles Grodin plays Lenny, an unwitting sociopath trapped in his persona of a nice guy - and May pulls out all the stops in her excoriation of this entitled self-centred manbaby, finding the bitter comedy in Lenny's hideous cruelty and jaw-dropping lack of self-awareness.
Don't Look Now
Was there ever a better-edited film? Don't Look Now is one of the great spins on a tragic narrative device: the mystery that destroys the investigator, the search for knowledge that annihilates the knower. For Roeg the past and future are with us, always. But where one might cherish that thought as a consolation in the face of tragedy, here the bitter irony is that slipping the bounds of time leads to death itself.
De Palma toys with, reformulates, and surpasses Coppola's The Conversation, in a despairing film that finds great joy in celebrating its own technique – whistling to the grave, perhaps, but what a tune! John Travolta's sound technician Jack has a moral awakening that does nothing more than allow him to realise that he's living in a post-truth world where others make the rules. While De Palma has fun with his own sound design, split diopters, and split screens, there's nothing more for Jack to say other than to agree: “It’s a good scream…”
Carpenter's body-horror tale of isolated paranoia, almost a chamber piece, gives us a wonderful array of masculine types going at each other's throats – figuratively and then literally. The Thing is an apocalyptic vision of despair and dread, and yet a great popcorn action movie, too. If only 12 Angry Men had featured an exploding ribcage.
Synecdoche, New York
Kaufman's absurdist film riffs on many of the director's own admitted neuroses before focusing in on the big one – that your existence will be over before you know it, art is a distraction from life, and so to give one's self over to that art is nothing but a trap that will rob you of everything you might once have had a chance to hold dear. Now that's a true horror movie.
Carax ruminates on cinema itself, with a vision in which our dream palaces have somehow escaped into the real world – or else the real world is escaping into dreams. Throughout the film's stop-start narrative, a series of playfully trite genre tropes and cinematic trappings wrestle with an underlying romanticism and yearning melancholy that can be neither directly expressed nor entirely buried. As for whether the superficial or spiritual will win out – well, perhaps they each live to battle another day, on a screen near you.
Under the Skin
Glazer's film of Under the Skin succeeds as an adaptation of Michel Faber's novel in the way most great adaptations succeed: by stripping the narrative back to its barest bones – and even stripping some of those bones away too – and then building the story back up with a sublime command of imagery, texture, time, place, and cinematic rhythm.
Under the Skin knows that films are to be seen, and also that people are to be seen – and that in truly seeing people we cannot help but deepen our empathy with them, and expose our inner selves in return, opening up vulnerabilities with all the danger that brings. But perhaps that's how it is to be human, even if you didn't start that way.
It is traditional, in giving further remarks, to ruminate on painful absences – so, nothing from me by Davids Lynch or Cronenberg. No Paul Verhoeven, or Edward Yang (my apologies to A Brighter Summer Day). No Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, or Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, forever in my heart). No Spike Lee, or Powell and Pressburger (for the record, it would have been The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). No 'US Go Home' from Clare Denis or Lovers Rock from Steve McQueen, two house-party films that slow-dance with each other around my subconscious. Alas!
As for what I included: some people may draw up their lists in order to array the impressive range of their cinematic consumption, covering all eras and genres via impressive gymnastics. Some may endeavour to actively 'reshape the canon' – perhaps by consciously excluding anything they consider to have been previously championed, no matter how much they love it. Arguably that itself is a way of being beholden to the choices of the past, but perhaps we must kill our darlings to move forward. My own list skews recent, but not as a result of consciously eschewing the old. Instead, I have chosen to interpret "greatest" as "favourite", and embraced the fact that, for better or worse, it will therefore be slightly narrower in range and reflect my own times and sensibilities. Again: alas!
In closing, I turn to Warner Brothers. Give us the uncensored cut of Ken Russell's The Devils, you swine.