This was much harder than I thought it’d be; I haven’t attempted a comprehensive list like this in about a decade. There are at least 55 films I could likely swap with the bottom third of the list and not feel bad about.
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
- Three Colors: Red (1994)
- Children of Men (2006)
- Millennium Actress (2001)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955)
- The Godfather (1972)
- Tokyo Story (1953)
- Tree of Life (2011)
- 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)
- Spirited Away (2002)
- Mulholland Drive (2001)
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
- The Bicycle Thief (1948)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
- Whisper of the Heart (1995)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
- The Lion King (1994)
- Star Wars (1977)
- Only Yesterday (1991)
- Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
- Ran (1985)
- The Princess Bride (1987)
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
- Yojimbo (1961)
- Psycho (1960)
- Late Spring (1949)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
- Taxi Driver (1976)
- The Fall (2006)
- Dark City (1998)
- Suspiria (1977)
- The Shining (1980)
- A Little Princess (1995)
- Casablanca (1942)
- Inglourious Basterds (2009)
- Rear Window (1954)
- The Vanishing (1988)
- Beauty and the Beast (1991)
- Ratatouille (2007)
- Brooklyn (2015)
- Alien (1979)
- On the Waterfront (1954)
- All About Eve (1950)
- Departures (2008)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- The Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
- Summer Wars (2009)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
- The Thing (1982)
- Jaws (1975)
- The Apartment (1960)
My little blog turned 5 years old today. On one hand, I haven’t been the most prolific blogger. It has had numerous fallow periods. But it has always been here for me when I need it. Writing about movies is therapeutic for me. It does me a lot of good to have a place where I can write what I want, when I want, at my own pace.
That I have picked up some followers along the way amazes me. Again, I’m not a full-time or even part-time blogger. My output leaves a lot to be desired. But every comment, every view I get makes me happy. That my writing has an audience of any size makes me happy.
So here’s a little present from me to my readers, to celebrate today, a few things to commemorate my blog’s 5th anniversary. Below are some top 5 lists: five posts that I’m proud of, five great blogs I love, and later tonight, my 55 favorite films of all-time.
Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to what the next five years will bring!
Five posts of mine I’m proud of
I was still figuring out what this blog was going to be when I tried a just-for-fun experiment: seeing what I could learn about movies I loved by looking at the opening shots. It was the first time I realized just how much fun writing about movies could be. After that, I tried to keep writing only pieces I could really enjoy writing.
In which I make the case for one of my most deeply-held beliefs about movies: that adapting books to the letter is much less important than capturing their spirit.
I sometimes dabble in writing about TV shows, and Game of Thrones is a favorite of mine. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from criticizing it when I think it’s merited. I do feel vindicated by this piece, though: the show’s sixth season was widely praised as one of its best, and it dialed back much of the empty shock value that nearly made me give up on the show in favor of the intrigue and epic sweep that made it so gripping in the first place.
I was going through a bout with depression when I wrote this piece, about another mental illness I’ve been grappling with my entire life. I was extremely nervous about hitting “Publish” on this piece, but I’m so glad I did.
This one means a lot to me for so many reasons. As an American, it’s important for me to remember what I love about my country in an election season that has so often given a megaphone to those who would enforce the worst, most narrow-minded instincts upon the entire populace. Brooklyn is a beautiful film that reflects a country that I can be proud of.
This piece also meant a lot to my mom. It is as much a tribute to her as it is to the movie. After she read it she told me with tears in her eyes how much it meant to her. Four months later, she passed away. I don’t think I have it in me to watch Brooklyn again now. But it is a special movie to me for that reason, and this review will always have a special place in my heart.
Five blogs I love
Anna over at Film Grimoire hasn’t posted in a couple of weeks, which means I haven’t been able to read her lovely writing about movies as often as I’d like. Her reviews are straightforward, honest, and excellent. She is also a tireless promoter of other excellent bloggers; her monthly favorites lists are required reading.
They really aren’t assholes, try as they might to convince you otherwise. Matt, Jay, and Sean are passionate cinephiles whose love for movies and writing about them is so infectious, that even if they were assholes I’d still love their site.
Rob at MovieRob watches so many movies, half the fun is simply seeing what he’s watching next. His monthly Genre Grandeur blogathons are always a lot of fun as well, to both participate in and to read when they’re finished.
Horror is my favorite genre, and horror writer Michael Thomas-Knight runs a superb site that covers horror from all angles: films, fiction, interesting attractions, and more. I always know I’ll find something fun whenever I visit.
Joshua Hoffine’s horror photography has been some of my favorite horror in any medium over the last few years. He doesn’t update his blog very often, but the behind-the-scenes looks at his photography are wonderful. If you love horror like I do, please check his work out!
(Coming later, my 55 favorite movies!)
I haven’t written here for a while. Here are some thoughts I spilled last night to get the gears moving again. Some spoilers below for the movies discussed.
Beauty is something we can all immediately recognize, even as we can never agree to a person what is and isn’t beautiful.
Beauty is one of the aspects of a movie I respond to most of all, even if I can’t exactly define what makes a film beautiful. At least not in a way that I can apply consistently from movie to movie.
For example, I loved Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. But is it beautiful? Dazzling, sure. Visually stunning, absolutely. But I’m not sure I’d call it beautiful. Not as a whole work. There are certainly gorgeous shots, but beautiful shots can’t make a whole film beautiful any more than a few individual words can make a whole poem beautiful. My favorite films often have the same appeal of poetry to me; at their best, they evoke strong, specific emotions.A good poem can transport me into the mind and heart of the poet. Good movies can do the same thing.
What about my favorite film of Cuaron’s, Children of Men? I would call it one of the most beautiful of all films. Yes, it takes place in a grimy, miserable universe. Yes, it tells a story rife with death. But it’s a deeply humanist film, and its visuals are propulsive and actively serve the storytelling. The beauty of the images and the beauty of the story culminate in that tracking shot near the end when a brutal battle is interrupted, for a moment, by the sight of a baby. The moment is Cuaron’s masterpiece, taking an element that could have been mawkish all on its own and building to it with precision until he created a symphony of images and narrative that was as moving as any scene I’ve seen in a movie theatre.
Just as there’s more to making a painting truly beautiful than recreating a beautiful scene, the most beautiful films are always more than the sum of their parts. You know how much I love Hayao Miyazaki, and no one would argue over how beautiful his films are. He is the 21st century standard for imaginative filmmaking. And yet for as much as I love Miyzaki (Princess Mononoke will always be my favorite film) I don’t think he’s responsible for the most beautiful Studio Ghibli movie. That honor goes to Only Yesterday, the bittersweet drama by Isao Takahata. Its visuals aren’t as lush as Miyazaki’s (or even those in Takahata’s lovely The Tale of Princess Kaguya). The story, of a 27 year-old woman looking back on her childhood while casting an uncertain eye to the future, isn’t as obviously moving as the rich, propulsive plots of other Ghibli films. But there’s a quiet beauty constantly humming beneath the surface. Every scene is rich with life, sometimes sadness, sometimes delight, but mostly just everyday familiarities, moments that sing with truth. Sometimes the most beautiful thing an artist can provide is empathy.
Of course, there’s more to beauty in art than humanist affirmation. Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor? She specialized in southern Gothic tales of mean people doing cruel things to each other with passages that, out of nowhere, evoke feelings of something divine, even apocalyptic. The beauty in a Flannery O’Connor story is not the type that inspires wistful reflection. It is always at odds with the material, fighting through it, giving you fits because the mere suggestion of a shred of beauty in a story like A Good Man is Hard to Find seems so at odds with the material. And yet it’s undeniably there, made somehow more potent by its suddenness and brevity.
Those moments of beauty are my favorites. They pop up so unexpectedly and have the sort of permanent impact on me that truly inspires. For this reason, there might be no more beautiful film than The Night of the Hunter. Charles Laughton’s only film as a director tells a tale that is as dark as the woods at night. At times it is demonically sinister. It is filled with cosmic dread. And then, it finds the beauty. The scene where Shelley Winters body is found submerged at the bottom of the lake still retains its horrific power, even as it evokes the same feelings of grand religious paintings. The scene where Robert Mitchum chases the children through the swamps is one of the most deathly frightening chase scenes ever filmed, culminating in his character screaming one of the most fearsome screams in cinema history. The standoff at the end between Mitchum and Lillian Gish’s kindly caretaker of orphaned children is almost literal in its divine imagery, pitting Mitchum’s satanic false preacher against Gish’s guardian angel. It wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the film’s total conviction in its imagery. It wouldn’t be so powerful if it weren’t so convincingly ugly, if it weren’t so divinely beautiful.
Was there ever another actor like Gene Wilder? He was unrelentingly funny. But unlike most unrelentingly funny actors, he never settled into a single familiar persona. He could play soft and gentle. He could play manic and furious. He could play a completely original, weird concoction of his own making and make it work.
As is the ritual when a beloved celebrity dies, I discovered Gene Wilder’s passing today with a Twitter feed full of people reminiscing on their favorite moments, films, and performances. It’s easy to be jaded by the familiarity of this ritual. I’d urge everyone not to become so. There’s a reason some people resonate with so many.
I’m out of anything to say. Gene Wilder was a man whose art mattered to so many, myself included. That’s one of the most remarkable things a person can accomplish. I’ll miss him.
In July two of my favorite movie bloggers- Anna at Film Grimoire and Rob at Movierob– ran a blogathon centered around movies that are 90 or fewer minutes long. I contributed a review of Millennium Actress. You can find all the essays here.
“What does the key open?”
“The most important thing there is.”
Memories are all we have, really. The present is fleeting. The future hasn’t happened. Everything else is memory. Memories define how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Love of all forms is built upon and sustained by memories. There are two love stories at the center of Millennium Actress. One is based almost entirely on one memory; the other is built on the accumulation of decades of memories.
Milliennium Actress jumps right into its story. Genya, a documentary director, drags his cameraman, Kyoji, to the home of the long-retired, long reclusive film star, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Genya is making a documentary about her. Upon meeting her, he gives her a present: a key. The key is a memento of hers long lost. What it opens materially is irrelevant. When he gives her the key, her memories begin to flow.
Millennium Actress was the second film by the brilliant animator Satoshi Kon. From 1997 through 2006, Kon had an astonishing run of quality, directing four films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent. He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 while working on a fifth film (the still unfinished Dreaming Machine). Most of his films- Tokyo Godfathers excepted- dance in and out of reality, deliberately challenging the viewer to a point where we have to abandon our usual expectations of narrative flow.
Millennium Actress might be Kon’s most ambitious work in this regard. It plunges into and out of Chiyoko’s memories, those memories blending with scenes from her movies. Genya seems in on the game, popping up regularly in memories and scenes he has no business being in. Kyoji is the audience conduit, offering bewildered meta-commentary on the constant scene-changes.
If it sounds like Millennium Actress is hard to follow, it’s not. This is an enchanting film. Kon knows well how memories are as much about feelings and sensations as the actual events. It makes sense at a level beyond linear narrative. It bursts with energy and heart. Kon’s animation was never lovelier than it is here. His signature lush foregrounds and simple, static backgrounds give it a dreamlike quality.
If I haven’t begun to describe the plot of Millennium Actress, that’s because the plot is fairly spare. We discover early on that the primary catalyst in Chiyoko’s journey is her search for a political prisoner she helped escape from the police. The man was an artist. We see their one conversation, gazing up at the moon that night. He leaves in the morning. That’s as much as I will reveal. The plot is minimal, which makes room for what Millennium Actress is really about. It’s about how a moment so innocent and innocuous can take on a cosmic significance. How a moment of kindness, a conversation under the stars, or a gift that unlocks long-lost memories, can become impassable mountains in the path of the narrative of one’s life. My favorite scene in the film involves Chiyoko discovering a memento left behind for her years before. In a typical film, with a linear narrative, it would be a sweet, sentimental moment. In this film, it’s a moment of equally towering joy and sadness.
With remarkable empathy, Millennium Actress explores how deeply we really are tied to our memories. Memories shape us. We can spend lifetimes dissecting a moment from our past, trying to explore it from every angle. It’s a frenetic tale, yes, but then so is life. Millennium Actress is attuned to life in its full spectrum.
*for any Hawaiian or Alaskan readers I might have
At several times during the 2 hour and 57 minute runtime of Hard to Be a God, I considered putting the rest of the film off until tomorrow. It’s one of the most difficult films I’ve ever seen. It is gross in that word’s most primal sense. It swims beneath layers of mud, feces, piss, spit, and mucus. It is an endurance test of vile imagery.
Yet every time I paused it, I realized that I had to finish it, in one sitting. Beneath the scum and shit is one of the most astonishing nightmare visions I’ve ever seen in a film. If you could get a glimpse of a horrifying, totally alien civilization and do so from the safety of your home, behind a screen… well, wouldn’t you?
Maybe not. Perhaps if the world is so dire, so grotesque, so utterly without redemption, that might not be something you want to see. And that is completely understandable. But one of the joys of watching movies for me is when a director gives us a completely unfettered vision of a world that can only exist in film. Hard to Be a God is one of the most complete, astonishing visions that you’ll see in any movie.
Hard to Be a God was the final film by Russian filmmaker Aleksei German. It took him six years to film and he died before it was was finally released. The plot is both straightforward and beside the point. It takes place on an alien world called Arkanar. It resembles Earth, and is populated by a very human-like species. The main difference? They are about 800 years behind Earth, still in their own Medieval period. A group of scientists journeyed there to observe the unfolding of what they hoped would be Arkanar’s renaissance. They blended in with the populace and pledged to not interfere with any of the planet’s sociopolitical developments.
The renaissance never came. The population of Arkanar turned on its intellectuals and artists, executing them en masse. Now stuck on a planet that is stuck, willingly, in its own Dark Ages, we meet our protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik). He goes by the title Don Rumata. He rules a small fiefdom, aided by the tall tale that he is the descendant of a god. The film is essentially a day in his life. It is an aimless day. He ostensibly has a goal: to find a doctor who has been kidnapped by a rival baron. But Rumata wanders from place to place in a haze of disillusioned stupor. The wandering becomes the point of the film. Plot points do emerge, but they do so with little warning or sense of an arc. Only near the end, when an act of violence becomes a personal matter for Rumata, does he become energized.
Yarmolnik’s performance is one of remarkable endurance; not only does he lead us on a tour of this hellscape, but he so convincingly plays a man worn to total indifference from having been trapped here. The fetid squalor is unrelenting. Everything drips. Everything. Everyone is filthy. The sound effects consist heavily of the sort of human noises that sound editors normally try to edit out. We hear every grunt, sniffle, cough, and squelch. The worst squelches are the mysterious ones.
My description of this film might seem like an attempt to make people not see it. That is not the case. I’m trying to be clear: Hard to Be a God is a profoundly difficult film to watch. It made me nauseous. It might simply bore some to tears. But it is not simply a self-indulgent film. The disconnect from any plot made sense to me early on. It helps us more quickly feel submerged in German’s world, and what a world he has created here. It contains horrors that would make Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel proud. Nothing here is vile for the sake of it. German grosses us out to immerse us in his creation, not to repel us. Some might still be repelled. I almost was. But there is something so fascinating about this film. If I could take a tour of the world within Bosch painting with the assurance that I would face no danger, I would do so in a heartbeat. Hard to be a God is as close as I’ll get to that.
Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is a perfect song. It’s one of my desert island songs. On its surface it’s a simple appeal of love. But between Ben E. King’s aching vocals and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s spare, gorgeous production, it always feels so grand to me. It feels like the end of something. Like someone deeply frightened calling out for help. It’s the one song that captures the feeling of total trust and love of someone else.
It’s the perfect choice for the title of this film.
Stand By Me might be Rob Reiner’s best film. He had a hell of a run in the 1980s. From 1984 though 1989, he made This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally. While the last film on that list hasn’t aged well for me (its view on friendships between men and woman is one of the worst bits of pop philosophy to go mainstream), the first three all have something rare and wonderful in common. They are all great films that also seem to stand alone and, when you watch them, feel nostalgic and yet completely original. This is Spinal Tap was a breakthrough in the mockumentary genre, in being both hysterically funny and yet completely convincing. The Princess Bride is an ode to children’s fantasy and a devilish subversion. It mines the genre for jokes so well that it might be the most quotable film every made, and yet its heart is completely earnest. And Stand By Me is a coming-of-age film that feels like no other. Its characters are not the film’s attempt to encapsulate the adolescent experience. They aren’t metaphors. They are simply four kids trying to find a dead body.
Rob Reiner is a sentimental director, but he has a knack for dramatic pacing and timing. He can make the most of a good script, identifying and amplifying its strengths. The script Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon wrote for Stand By Me is often perfect. Their ear for dialogue, for the sort of competitive vulgarity that 12-year-olds can speak in, is spot on. The performances by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell never falter. The story told here is not a universal one; most people watching it today did not grow up in small-town Oregon in the 1950s. But the feeling of summer ending, of clinging to moments before they get away and you’ll never get them back? That is something anyone who has been 12 in the summer can relate to. It’s a deeply confusing age. The characters in Stand By Me grapple with issues that overwhelm them. Gordie (Wheaton) lost his older brother. Chris (Phoenix) is poor and his family is scorned by the neighbors. Teddy (Feldman) was horrifically abused by his father, who is now in a mental hospital. Verne (O’Connell), bless him, seems to have the most stable family life, but he did lose his jar of pennies.
Reiner, Evans, and Gideon resist the urge to be on the nose about the growing up these characters will do in this movie. They hear that a boy’s dead body is somewhere, a day’s hike away. They want to find the body and be heroes. That contrast between grave seriousness and childlike zeal continually comes up throughout the movie. At one point Chris and Teddy nearly fight after Chris stops Teddy from a dangerous, almost suicidal stunt. Both are grappling with powerful emotions that they can’t easily express, even if they wanted to. Then Chris calls a truce: a low-five. A child’s ritual ends the conflict. For now, at least.
The contrast between childish ritual and the looming feelings of adolescence is a far more elegant way of telling this story than filling it to the brim with metaphor. These characters are still children. Children who are aware that growing up is impending, but they aren’t there yet. They aren’t going to suddenly be “men” by the end of the movie. They’re still going to be children. Watching the film again for the first time since I was a teenager, I was struck by how worried I was about them seeing the dead body. It’s not a coming-of-age moment, but a collective loss of innocence.
I was also more aware of the film’s concessions to commercial expectations. Richard Dreyfuss’s narration is so distracting that at times I wished I could turn it off. The occasional comic insight is dwarfed by how often the narration intrudes on a quiet moment, telling us things we already know, or ruining moments of lovely ambiguity with on the nose nudging.
The gang of teenagers led by Kiefer Sutherland are also unnecessary. They are so comically one-dimensional that their artifice becomes apparent: they exist solely to create a tense standoff at the end, a scene that is completely at odds with the quiet soulfulness of the rest of the movie.
But those are quibbles. Stand By Me is one of those films that expresses a seemingly ineffable feeling; the of desperation of the last few weeks of summer, and the intense loneliness of feeling things without knowing how to talk about them. It’s about the steadfast bonds of young friendship, and all the rituals and rules and confidences that make friendships during childhood take on an importance that is almost inevitably lost with maturity. Bonds are stronger when you are staring into a vast unknown together, and there are few times with more unknowns that your last summer before you’re a teenager.
Stand By Me is one of the finest coming-of-age films, because it never seems to be about growing up. It understands that there is no narrative of growing up when you’re 12. Life comes fast at all times when you’re 12. But damn if it doesn’t happen faster in the summer.