Senior Lecturer in Cinema and Screen Studies, Swinburne University of Technology
|The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring
|El ESPINAZO DEL DIABLO
|Guillermo del Toro
|The Spirit of the Beehive
|HONOGURAI MIZUNO SOKOKARA
|Mad Max: Fury Road
The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring
I will never forget the first time I experienced this film in the cinema - it transported me into its epic and immersive world the moment the prologue narration started. It shifted my perception of what movies were capable of. No film since has taken me on a mythic journey the way Fellowship of the Ring did. That this effect is still conjured for me every time I watch this film after countless re-watches is testament to its majesty and power.
The Ring cyrstallizes into an unshakeable nightmare the haunted media focus of so many horror films of the millennial turn. The film is beautiful, with a hauntingly minimalist but intense score from Hans Zimmer, a surrealist edge, and images soaked in blue-green hues that give the film a sodden, almost underwater effect. While US remakes of East Asian horror films were pervasive (and often problematic) in the early 2000s, Verbinski's film stands apart: The Ring showcases the potentials of transcultural Hollywood horror remakes to re-interpret their source materials in ways that identify and amplify globally resonant cultural anxieties. I struggled to sleep with a television in my room for years after I saw this film. It frightened me more than any other horror film I've seen (and I've seen A LOT).
El ESPINAZO DEL DIABLO
A horror film that operates like audio-visual poetry, The Devil's Backbone is for me the most impactful display of del Toro's ability to weave cinematic fairy tales out of socio-historical traumas. The tragedy inherent to the ghost story is the focus of this film, and this tragedy is stitched into every moment of dread and fear the ghost provokes. The spectral Santi is depicted, as the opening narration suggests, like an 'insect trapped in amber': a moment of pain and tragedy frozen in time. As he stalks the corridors and peers through keyholes, Santi appears as though he is floating in stagnant water, the blood from a long-ago inflicted head-wound floating up into the ether. This aesthetically powerful rendering of the trauma and tragedy of ghosts is key to the film's meditation on the lingering cultural traumas of the Spanish Civil War. In this way, The Devil's Backbone showcases how cinematic ghost stories can be potent vehicles of socio-historical critique.
The Spirit of the Beehive
The power of this haunting and elliptical film is embodied by its central child character, Ana, and the performer who shares her character's name, Ana Torrent. The film is filtered through Ana's confused and disempowered perspective of the world around her, as both her family and wider Spanish society come to terms with the Francoist victory over the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Torrent's wide-eyed gaze communicates the child's bewilderment but also persistence as she tries to make sense of her environment, personifying a Spanish people detached from stability and meaning at a liminal historical juncture. Rather than functioning like a simplistic allegory, Erice and Torrent's construction of this "every-child" evocatively works through the raw emotions of this socio-political situation. Released in a liminal political period 2 years before Franco's death, the film's enigmatic critique of Francoist oppression under the lingering influence of state censorship operates like a promise of future growth and liberation. Ana tries to comprehend the world around her via her obsession with the monster in Frankenstein, establishing a template that powerfully fuses art and horror cinema that del Toro builds upon in another of my favourite films, The Devil's Backbone.
The Changeling elegantly examines the interface between the aesthetics and mechanics of the haunted house story and the deep psychological structures of personal trauma. George S. Scott's majestic performance and the sound design capture the spooky melding of the protagonist's traumatic memories of his wife and child's death and the haunting he is currently experiencing. That Scott's John is a composer is used to great effect to harness this combination of sound and performance to blur the lines between interior and exterior hauntings. Ever since I first saw this film, I find myself measuring all other haunted house films against it.
The Babadook is such a staggering achievement as a directorial debut. Like all of my favourite horror films, the movie provokes in the viewer a terror that is emotionally complex and at times difficult to untangle: there is guilt, for instance, mixed in with the fear we share with protagonist Amelia of her young son Sam. The bogeyman of the film's title is gorgeously rendered via sound and simple black-and-white imagery to 'feel' like he has emerged from little Sam's mysterious pop-up book. Childish fears of the bogeyman thus become adult ones in The Babadook, for both Amelia and the audience. This conceit beautifully captures the key themes of the film about shared family traumas. I had to stop using my coat racks for weeks after I first saw this film, because I kept jumping at the sight of the 'babadook' out of the corner of my eye.
HONOGURAI MIZUNO SOKOKARA
Dark Water is a deeply moving supernatural reflection on how Japanese social structures can be particularly isolating for women and girls. In the film, dampness and the structural decay it causes aesthetically render the 'liquification' of previously solid social institutions like marriage, school, home, and the family in horrifying and tragic ways. I have never been able to shake sounds and images from this movie, and they will often return to me at unexpected moments when there is a drip in the bathroom or a strange damp in some corner of the house.
For years, I thought the fragments lodged in my mind from Kwaidan were a half-remembered nightmare or dream I had when I was a small child. It was only when I re-encountered the film as a young adult that I realised the striking images of a man with no ears, deadly black hair, and a ghostly woman in the snow were from Kwaidan. I must have sneakily watched it from the hallway while it was on the television in the living room of my childhood home, my parents oblivious to my presence or possibly asleep in front of the TV. This film obviously left a lasting imprint before I was old enough to make any sense of what I was experiencing, and is in part responsible for my life-long love of horror. I think it's the most incredible horror anthology film of all time and I am so grateful for my chance childhood encounter.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Fury Road lives up to its title and is exhilarating from go to whoa. A film built to be experienced on the biggest possible screen with the biggest possible sound, it shreds your nerves just like the War Boys' shred their electric guitars on their way into monster-truck-style battle. Watching this film on an Imax screen felt like I was on one of those theme park rides that comes with an 'extreme thrills' warning - and I don't mean that as a pejorative as Scorsese does when he compares movies to theme park rides. This film is visceral in the best sense of the word - with the thrill ride effect being tied to the emotive and thematic power of the narrative - and it left me feeling breathless. I still remember the silence between myself and my two companions after it ended, and the first reaction of my friend as the theatre lights came on: "what just happened!!?" If any recent film is going to be held up as testament to the ongoing importance of theatrical exhibition to movies as a medium, for me Fury Road is it.
I first experienced this film as an early teen, and it left me terrified, bewildered, annoyed, and with new perceptual lenses through which to appreciate and understand cinema. The boundaries of my movie-watching tastes were forever changed and it gave me a life-long love of the subversively weird and scary. Thanks, David!
I am not good at picking "favourites" or coming up with definitive lists - and indeed I don't think it's possible to come up with a list that definitively or objectively captures the 'greatest' films of all time. So for me, "greatest" films of all time means those that have had the most profound impact on my psyche, and on my film-viewing habits, tastes, and travels throughout my life.