Professor of Screen Media
|Singin' in the Rain
|Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
|The Magnificent Seven
|Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht
|O Brother, Where Art Thou?
|Fantastic Mr. Fox
|For a Few Dollars More
Singin' in the Rain
Singin’ in the Rain is one of those classics that I have seen many, many times since I was a kid. The story, the music, the dances, the wonderful characters, the direction — it’s flawless. Its story about the cinema’s transition from silent to sound places it in the domain of comedy, but it also celebrates the coming of sound because this makes possible the birth of the musical. Along with MGM’s An American in Paris (1951) and The Bandwagon (1953), the film introduced innovation to the Hollywood musical under the guidance of producer Arthur Freed. All three films present their own unique arguments for the merging of so-called low and high arts. In Singin’ in the Rain this is perhaps expressed most vividly in the 13 minute musical number 'Broadway Melody', which represents the rise-to-fame of the main character, played by Gene Kelly, who begins as a 'hoofer' and ends up in the arms of Cyd Charisse as both bring modern ballet to the Hollywood musical.
This film blew me away when I first saw it. Its plot centres around an old man who works at a mental asylum to care for his wife, but this story merges into and blurs with so many other snippets of other inmates. Combining montage techniques he’d seen in Soviet cinema, Kinugasa creates an alternative to German Expressionism’s expression of subjective reality. A Page of Madness is an example of a Japanese movement called Shinkankakuha (New Perceptions) and here Kinugasa takes us on a journey that fluidly blends reality and fiction.
I first saw Seven Samurai as a kid, during a time when I was obsessed with 1960s anime and shows like Samurai, with the legendary Shintaro and the evil ninja who hunted him. It was during this time I developed a love for Toshiro Mifune. His presence in Seven Samurai certainly added to the love I have for this film, but there are so many things that make this one of my best films. The direction and cinematography in those battle scenes; the sincere and raw emotion expressed by the farmers and samurai at a number of points in the film; the stirring soundtrack composed by Fumio Hayasaka; the moral dilemmas facing these masterless samurai; and the class structure that is presented as fragile and facing inevitable collapse. Perfection.
The Magnificent Seven
Yes, it’s an adaptation of Seven Samurai: did I have to choose this as well? Yes, absolutely. As with many of the films I’ve chosen for my top ten, this is a film that’s stayed with me since my childhood when, usually on Saturday afternoons, I watched westerns on the telly with my dad. Every time I see it, it just gets better. Like many westerns in the years just before and after its release — most notably The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — The Magnificent Seven is a homage and farewell to the western genre: to its heroes, its shootouts, and its representations of the struggle for civilisation to overpower chaos. Each of those heroes is a different facet of the cowboy hero, and the performances and star power of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughan give the film its mythic quality — as does a villainous performance by Eli Wallach as Calvera. And did I mention the soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein?
Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre epitomises, for me, how a film has the power to tell its story in powerful ways through the stylistic properties of the cinema. I still remember seeing this film when I was studying cinema and I’ll never forget the effect it had: I didn’t just watch this film and understand its story; I felt this film and its mesmerising visuals and sounds (and the unforgettable soundtrack by the German music collective Popol Vuh) seemed to crawl under and into my flesh. And, of course, Klaus Kinski playing the vampire is a masterful stroke. His movement onscreen is like a fluid, diabolical, seductive dance.
I’ve always loved Jerry Lewis even though many people don’t like his style of comedy. I don’t care. There are so many memorable comedy scenes – when Herbert H. Heebert cleans Mrs Wellenmellen’s portrait and smudges her lipstick, when he dances a waltz with George Raft, who plays himself, when he tries to repair the gangster’s hat and they both crack up and break the fourth wall, when the audio guy asks for a soundcheck — “Geronimo!” But The Ladies Man is also a masterful exploration of the coming of television and the new, technologically cluttered and clumsy systems of production. The film draws attention to its form, most famously when the camera pulls back to reveal the entire set as a layered cutaway — a device that Jean-Luc Godard would later use in Tout va bien (1972), a film he co-directed with Jean-Pierre Gorin.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
From the minute I found out this was going to be a loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, I was in! Admittedly, so many of the Coen Brothers’ films could have been in my top ten, but I chose this one because of its sheer zaniness. I felt like I was taken on a crazy journey through what might have been the 1930s, but also some place that was ethereal and mysterious. The mad adventures of the Soggy Bottom Boys are sheer joy and, in fact, the film reveals a deep pleasure in trying to capture the 1930s visually but also musically through the country, folk music and ideology of the time.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
This stop-motion animated film directed by Wes Anderson is based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, but under Anderson’s direction it becomes something funny, heart-warming, stylised and eccentric— a creation that can only exist in Anderson’s fictional world. His decision to primarily use traditional stop-motion animation brings the charismatic characters to life, and we embrace them and their trials — as they try to survive being hunted by three farmers — with joy and trepidation. Yes, the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson and many others add to the emotional depth of the characters they play, but the animation effects generate a whole other level of magic, one that is almost a life force in itself.
For a Few Dollars More
For a Few Dollars More was the second film in the so-called Dollars trilogy, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. In a 1967 review of the English version release, critic Roger Ebert said, “Here is a gloriously greasy, sweaty, hairy, bloody and violent western. It is delicious.” And delicious it is! Filmed primarily in Spain and Italy (at Rome’s Cinecittà studios) it was very much a revamp of the Hollywood western tradition – Italian style. My love of this film comes from so many things: the comical camaraderie of the Eastwood/Lee Van Cleef characters; the sinister and blasphemous Indio (Gian Maria Volontè), who repeatedly presents himself as a reincarnation of Christ; 'Carillon’s Theme', the watch music theme that weaves its way through the film diegetically and non-diegetically, reminding the viewer of Mortimer’s quest for vengeance; and the magnificent shootouts, which are spectacular dances of cinematography cut to the epic music of Ennio Morricone. And then, of course, there’s Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name, an iconic character who’d return in many variations in Eastwood’s later films. Without him there’d be no Dirty Harry Callahan.
Minority Report is one of those science-fiction films that isn’t easily forgettable after viewing. The film is like a crystal ball that allowed the audience to not only look into but shape the future. So many of the technologies envisioned in the film, including the iconic augmented reality screens which respond to hand motion (designed by MIT graduate John Underkoffler), inspired real-world creations in the years that followed. The visionary power of the film – which was based on a short story by Philip K. Dick – is due to the decision made by director Steven Spielberg to bring together a think tank of some of the world’s greatest scientists, technologists, urban designers, science-fiction writers, computer scientists, etc. Production designer Alex McDowell condensed it all in the 80-page 2054 bible, which became the inspiration for the greatest example of meticulous world-building on screen. The result is one of the most inspired SF films ever produced.