|Le Voyage dans la Lune
|2001: A Space Odyssey
|The Wicker Man
|An American Werewolf in London
|James L. Brooks
|Field of Dreams
|Phil Alden Robinson
|Defending Your Life
|Capturing the Friedmans
Le Voyage dans la Lune
This is the moment cinema transformed from being a fairground novelty into a legitimate form of storytelling. More than this though, it was an artist/magician who showed us what was possible. So influential was this display of composition, special effects, camera movements and editing technique, that I think whenever people have subsequently referred to the ‘magic of cinema’ they are inarguably, even if unconsciously, referencing something gifted to us by Mr Méliès and this, his greatest work.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Speaking objectively, Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker of all time. I say that as somebody who counts absolutely no Kubrick films in his personal top 50 list. I don’t think I’ve ever even enjoyed the experience of watching a Kubrick film, I’m rarely in the mood for a repeat viewing because, frankly, the greatness is a bit overwhelming. He sits outside and above cinema. This is a filmmaker who could tackle any genre and a hugely diverse audience without once compromising his own vision. To pick a single film as his greatest is a fool’s errand but 2001 is perhaps his most influential, so perhaps his greatest. There is nothing more boring than hearing someone try to dissect or analyse a Kubrick film (see the documentary Room 237 or just go to any film-school party and sit next to the stoner for a near-identical experience) so I’ll just say that to watch 2001 is to bathe in the intellect, vision and force of a higher power. It is to experience true genius and stagger back out into the world reminded of your own cosmic confusion.
There are very few films that last longer than 90 minutes which can genuinely justify their running time. Shoah clocks in at over 9 hours yet, as a postcard from an 11-year production window, accruing over 350 hours of rushes, it deserves every second of your attention.
Lanzmann constructs a study of the concentration camps of Poland during the Holocaust and, by interviewing survivors of both sides of the conflict, he builds a meandering, horrifying, empathic web of firsthand testimony. The greatness of this film is that it never fails to humanise all involved, whilst never straying from the question as to how humanity could have ever reached such a point of depravity.
The Wicker Man
Great cinema is always one step ahead of you. The Wicker Man is eighty-seven (or ninety-nine, or ninety-two, depending on the version you watch) minutes ahead of you, the second you land your seaplane, alongside Sgt Howie in the opening titles. Cinema’s greatest spoiler, which must still be protected for those who have yet to keep their appointment. But there is so much more going on below the surface of this masterwork than sleight-of-hand. It speaks to religious zealotry, it captures a moment of change between the ancient and the modern world, it has humour, genuine horror and, wait, it’s a musical?
Although recently co-opted into the Folk Horror genre, it also stands defiantly alone as a film quite unlike any made before or since, gleefully refusing categorisation.
An American Werewolf in London
When it’s funny, it’s hilarious. When it’s scary, it’s horrifying. When it’s serious, it’s heartbreaking and when it’s playful, it’s joyous. When John Landis took two likeable young American men and threw them at the cursed Yorkshire Moors, he made a film which asked ‘but what if what happened in the movies REALLY happened?’ Giving the fourth wall a damn good kicking (but breaking it, terrifyingly, for just one shot), American Werewolf remains a vibrant, genuine experience in which the audience always feels fully invested as a participant rather than a viewer. It has a unique, crackling energy. I’ve long argued that the film is one long allegory for the modern Jewish experience (see my video essay on the Arrow Blu-ray). Landis has patiently listened to my theory for several years now, accepting it with wry good humour whilst always maintaining it was not his original intent. Either way, fans of horror and comedy have, for decades, recognised this as one of cinema’s greats.
Broadcast News breaks a huge taboo in mainstream cinema. It tells you that it’s OK to be intelligent. In fact, it acknowledges the hardships that can be inflicted upon those burdened with it in this crass, cheap culture. Unfairly billed as a romantic comedy, it is a sharp, insightful and delicious thesis on personal and professional ethics and politics. Rather than a comedy, perhaps it’s a tragedy, in which a trio representing academic intelligence (Albert Brooks), emotional intelligence (Holly Hunter) and fake intelligence (William Hurt) collude to elevate their personal and professional goals only to find their ambitions thwarted by their own morals and expectations.
James L. Brooks had an incredible knack with crafting characters of complexity and depth. Although his films were situational, the situation was always an arena in which he had his creations pitched against one another, breaking down their shells to reveal their humanity in all of its messy glory. The film, however, belongs to Holly Hunter.
Field of Dreams
I don’t care what anyone says. The golden age of Costner was a golden age of American cinema. He was an avatar for his country - a good-hearted, corn-fed everyman. Stupid enough to get himself into difficult situations but pure enough of intent and earnest enough in work to achieve eventual enlightenment. How does one even begin to describe Field of Dreams? A Baby Boomer parable? A post-religious story of salvation for disenfranchised hippies-turned-yuppies? An ex college radical hears a voice in the corn fields he owns telling him to build a baseball diamond and ‘If you build it, he will come’. Several other whispered tasks later, he has the ghosts of the disgraced 1919 Black Socks team playing there, he’s kidnapped banned sixties author James Earl Jones and Burt bloody Lancaster has given his final ever twinkly-eyed screen appearance. A film which constructs its own rules, it’s own reality and offers a new take on the troubled soul of America, A young, impetuous country which has fast forgotten the importance of playing catch with Dad.
Kind. Emotional. Epic. Intimate. Moving. Thoughtful. Unique. Great.
Defending Your Life
The films of Albert Brooks and his co-writer Monica Johnson have largely flown under the radar but they are wise, witty and staunchly their own thing. Defending Your Life is Brooks’s big budget opus. He plays Daniel, a middle-aged ad-man who crashes his car into a bus whilst distracted singing show tunes in his new sports car. Dead, he finds himself in Judgement City - a bureaucratic but charming place in which he will spend some time in a court-like situation in which his life will be examined and an advocate will argue on his behalf that he has achieved enough in his life to ‘move on’ rather than be reincarnated. Evidence is presented in the form of video highlights on the big screen in the darkened courtroom. Here we see moments of poignancy and, memorably, fast-cut montages of all of his most cringeworthy failures. It speaks to the human anxiety of low-achievement, it explores insecurity, questions mediocrity and posits a never-too-late philosophy. It dares to study the epic subject of the human soul and it does so with class and good humour.
A missive from an alternate universe. A rallying call to a revolution which never happened on our time line. It was the moment cinema became democratised. Cinema had previously been the province of the wealthy, the educated, the artist, the businessperson, an aspiration to be worked up to, fought for, and it was a place for big stories and big concepts. Then a working class guy who worked in a convenience store (having seen Linklater’s Slacker) just maxed-out his credit card and made a movie. Completely accidentally, the honesty of his venture became a lightning rod and the resulting film, Clerks, voiced the low-ambition frustrations of a generation. At the time, still barely a teenager, I saw this film as the harbinger of revolution. A completely unknown - unprofessional, even - cast and crew ably carrying an entire feature film. They sparkled with charm and attitude as they wasted their lives serving customers they despised. We were the heroes of an actual film. Finally, people who looked like us and sounded like us got to play on the screen. Not millionaires pretending to be or to understand us. I expected more films like this to follow. They didn’t.
Capturing the Friedmans
Capturing The Friedmans is not what it appears to be. It is not a documentary about the alleged sexual abuse conducted by Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse of children who attend their after-school computer club. It’s a Trojan Horse. A film which takes your hand and gives you a practical demonstration of how one must never mistake documentary for truth. More than that, it suggests that truth itself is an ethereal notion and really all we have is perspective. A parent tells us their child was abused. The child, now an adult says they were instructed by their parent to lie. Another now-adult class member confirms the abuse. A respected police officer tells us she saw a remorseless Jesse dancing on the courthouse steps as he awaited sentencing. A video of the moment in case, filmed by his brother, reveals the moment as one of emotional breakdown. In this age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ Capturing The Friedmans offers a compass to negotiate a landscape shaped by emotion and perspective and firmly rejects the notion that film might, despite what it purports, ever be construed as truth. A deeply important mind-expanding, horizon-broadening piece of work.
Aaaaargggh! The term ‘greatest’ is both an objective and subjective one and to identify the ten greatest films of all time has been a delicious and awful challenge. You can’t just pick your favourite films but then to name the ten films of the most obviously technical and artistic merit means to trot out either the same old sodding films everyone spraffs on about or to parade as a cultural elitist who was the only one to see some Bulgarian film about a magic button from 1954. The magic button did little for me and is Citizen Kane really all that great anymore?
I’m a medium-brow guy and I’m interested in honesty, insight and resonance. My notion of cinema is that of a shared entertainment in a big dark room. Although I have enjoyed and respect the most radical forms and interpretations of film, I’m most impressed by those who work within the traditional format of the three-act-structure and find something new or powerful to do with that. I decided to interpret ‘greatest’ as the examples of the finest work within that framework… to me. I thought it would be more interesting. I’m not ignorant of Hitchcock, Ozu, Kurosawa, Godard, Truffaut, Lean and all those other ‘great’ filmmakers. I just opted instead to talk about the films that have made me say “Oh, that’s great!” and have managed to still feel that way after decades of repeated viewing.
From a long list of thirtyish films, I whittled down to these ten and, honestly, surprised myself. Some of these films I have never even considered as my favourites but they are, undeniably, the ten films I most consider to be great.