|Quills (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)|
This isn't a top ten. I would find it very difficult to do that, as there are so many films that I, more or less, love equally. In fact, there are films missing from this that are certainly among my favourites, but I have covered them in my 10 favourite horror films list. So please see that for why I think "Psycho", "Jaws", "Nosferatu", "The Bride of Frankenstein" and "Silence of the Lambs" are masterpieces and would otherwise be on this list. There are no animated or children's films on here either, as I also think that "Watership Down", "The Secret of NIMH" and "Transformers: The Movie" probably need their place on a separate list.
Geoffrey Rush is perhaps one of the most talented actors working in film today. In Quills, a film that boasts a brilliant supporting cast in the form of Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine and Kate Winslet, Rush gives us the perfect Marquis de Sade. He seems like he was born to pay the part of the man who gave his name to sadism. The film defies a genre, resting very uneasily under the category of "period drama". This is no Jane Austen adaptation. Doug Write does a brilliant job in adapting his Obie prize-winning stage play to the screen, where the medium of the cinema provides some brilliant locations in the form of the Charenton asylum and Dr Royer-Collard's repossessed chateau. Full respect must go to the production designer, Martin Childs.
The film does not pretend to dramatize history; rather it uses historical figures to illustrate certain themes that de Sade and the libertine movement championed. Best of all, like most truly great films and plays, it does not provide an easy answer. Instead it shows both the hypocrisy of the forces of conservatism and the dangers of unbridled liberalism. For me, though, it is more about the immortality and persistence of ideas.
This film has dated and for the time being, seems to belong in the 1990s. At the time of its release, however, it was my unmatched favourite picture. It is no way a faithful adaptation of James O'Barr's also brilliant limited comic book series, but exists completely as its own entity. The film won notoriety and further morbid kudos in the Goth community due to the tragic death of Brandon Lee during a shooting scene. An extra air of spookiness was added by the coincidence that Lee's father the iconic martial arts actor, Bruce Lee, also died at a young age before the completion of a film where his character "dies", in a manner of speaking, and then comes back to life. However, these factors do not overshadow the fact that "The Crow" is a very good film.
As great as Lee is at making the role of Eric Draven his own - and he seems to relish every moment of it - another actor really steals the show. Michael Wincott is perhaps one of the most under-rated people in the business. According to the book of the film, Wincott was chosen for the role of "Top Dollar", a very minor role in the original graphic novel, when he stole the show from Gerard Depardieu in "1492: Conquest of Paradise". He does it again with Eddie Murphy in the otherwise pretty bad "Metro" and even does it with the great Morgan Freeman in "Along Came a Spider" by giving us a more complex kind of bad guy. "The Crow" is his crowning achievement though and the alternative community know this well. It is he who brings life to the film's best and most quotable lines, and it is he who helps keep the film's cult status.
"A man has an idea. The idea attracts others, like-minded. The idea becomes an institution. What was the idea?" is about as profound as a Hollywood fantasy action film can get. And who can forget this as the philosophical war cry for a movie villain, well over a decade before Heath Ledger's nihilistic Joker: "Greed is for amateurs. Chaos, disorder, anarchy. Now that's fun!"
Swimming with Sharks
This film was made in a short length of time and on a small budget. I tend to like a lot of films that were stage plays. Swimming with Sharks was made into a stage play and you can see why. It is a real actor's movie, with some brilliant scenes featuring Kevin Spacey playing the amoral and overbearing movie mogul, Buddy Ackerman, and Frank Whaley who plays the oppressed and vengeful Guy. It is the secret story of showbusiness and what every kid should watch before they decide media studies is an easy option. It would go on to inspire the novel "The Devil Wears Prada" and the rest is history.
I first saw this film by chance whilst channel surfing on Sky back in the '90s. It was repeated periodically and every time it struck a different chord with me. I feel it is one of the most misunderstood movies ever made. Again, like Wincott, Spacey's villain has other depths. An explanation for his amorality would stir the hearts of the most pious members of an audience. As for his own philosophy, it seems pretty hard not to take on board this piece of advice:
"Look, I can appreciate this. I was young too, I felt just like you. Hated authority, hated all my bosses, thought they were full of shit. Look, it's like they say, if you're not a rebel by the age of 20, you got no heart, but if you haven't turned establishment by 30, you've got no brains. Because there are no story-book romances, no fairy-tale endings. So before you run out and change the world, ask yourself, 'What do you really want?'"
Bram Stoker's Dracula
I know I said no horrors on this list, but this is actually a pretty ineffective horror. It has jumps, creepiness, horrific imagery and deals with the supernatural - hell, it is based on one of the most famous horror novels ever written - but this is no scare fest. I doubt any of its beautifully crafted scenes has made many top 100 scariest moments' lists. However, it is a visually stunning film with a brilliant cast, only marred by Keanu Reeves and his atrocious attempt at an English accent. Many have argued that is an example of style over substance, but in its defence it is one of the most
loyal adaptations of Stoker's novel adding in the historical Dracula to provide an interesting origin story. Interestingly it turns Dracula into a Byronic hero. I say interesting as Lord Byron was the original inspiration for the aristocratic vampire we know and love today. This last factor makes the film more of a Gothic romance than a horror picture and it is all the better for it. An amazing orchestral score that can be enjoyed on its own, especially on a rainy night, provides us with an almost operatic feel to the whole piece that gels with the very surreal edge Coppola uses to move the film. Finally we are left with Annie Lennox's beautifully haunting "Love Song for a Vampire", a track that easily makes my top 10 playlist.
"Scum" is another "uncomfortable" film to watch and yet for fans of this hard-hitting drama set in borstal, it is rarely watched once. Like other great challenging films, such as "Doubt" or "The Woodsman", it doesn't try to answer questions only pose problems. Over time it has found a rather dubious position as a macho film, a reputation that has later ensured some of the roles Ray Winstone has secured in the past two decades. The original play is also certainly worth seeing, mainly for its differences. The film tells the story of a brutal borstal, the type that were common in the 1970s, and the fight for survival of four inmates. Sadly much of the films' messages are overlooked and some scenes, although perfect in their execution, roused a disturbing response in some audiences.
Scum is often credited as the film that saw Alan Clarke's rise to critical acclaim. Having directed the original TV play, he turned the film into a cult success and would then later go to become a notorious force in the independent British film world. However, it is the writing of Roy Minton that is criminally forgotten. Minton painstakingly researched the story he turned into the TV drama and remains a rare example of an uncompromising artist. Sadly although the resulting feature film version is arguably one of the best pictures ever made, his vision was compromised and led to the end of his working partnership with Clarke.
A Few Good Men
This is yet another excellent stage play turned perfectly into a feature film. Once again, it tackles difficult subjects and a topic that interests me greatly: peer pressure. Like "Swimming with Sharks", Nicholson's role of Col. Jessop presents a philosophy that does ring true and yet is clearly corrupted.
"Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to."
The story itself presents awkward questions and offers some sort of resolution, but there is still a lot more on offer than a simple moral story and it prompts many re-watches.
There are many great comedies and the genre does not get nearly enough attention when we get to awards time. However, "Duck Soup" presents pure anarchic comedy at its all time best. The Marx Brothers had a very fast and steep climb to producing this masterpiece and then a very slow but gradual fall as it switched from Paramount Pictures. Duck Soup shows how the four brothers brilliantly evolved from their stageshow adaptations to a proper big screen feature, having cut their teeth previously with "Horse Feathers". There is the right balance of songs and less attempt at a serious storyline.Quite simply they give the job of running a country to Groucho and the job of taking him down to Chico and Harpo. The film contains some of the Groucho's best one-liners, exchanges and insults:
"Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it - I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle."
Furthermore, it contains the now classic and very often imitated mirror gag:
You may notice that I also have a sort of preference and sympathy for uncompromising works, where artists get the opportunity to cut loose. "Ed Wood" was a film that Walt Disney Pictures agreed to back and distribute for Tim Burton on the condition he made "The Nightmare Before Christmas". This is a film that if the corporations had their way would have been little more than a low budget art house piece. As it turned out one of history's worst directors, but greatest dreamers, gets a film with a budget more than he could have ever hoped for. Ed Wood is a wonderfully affectionate piece about passion and desperation in showbusiness that could work equally well in a double bill with "Gods and Monsters" (the fictionalized biopic of the last days of "Bride of Frankenstein" director James Whale) or the aforementioned "Swimming with Sharks". Johnny Depp is in fine form and this is the best collaboration he and Burton have done together.
Having worked on projects that had far more passion and ambition than practicality in the showbusiness world, the picture resonates with me a lot. Anyone who has struggled with zero budgets and had to compromise massively in order to achieve what you desire will have nothing but sympathy for the hapless and optimistic Ed. From doing a runner from a studio he hasn't paid the bill for to legging it from a disastrous premier with an oddball collection of cast members. The film, like Wood's hopelessly naive works, is a real labour of love.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy
This one is a massive cheat and I acknowledge it, but it's my damn list so you will over-look it. What happens when you give an innovative B movie director the budget and opportunity to make the film adaptations of his favourite written work? "Lord of the Rings" is a truly a remarkable moment in movie history. Tolkien always said that his magnum opus could never be properly dramatized. Jackson doesn't really do this. Understanding what the best radio adaptation of the trilogy understood, he divided scenes up so that they would make more dramatic sense. He does edit and he was never going to please everyone, especially not certain sections of Tolkien's fan club, but his resulting piece - which I see as a single feature - makes few concessions. For this reason I would certainly recommend that to really appreciate these films you watch the extended editions.
The Empire Strikes Back
The reason why "The Empire Strikes Back" stands out in the Star Wars cannon is down its daring. This is a family, arguably children, targeted event picture and yet it ends on a bittersweet cliffhanger with the hero having lost his duel and his right hand to the film's main bad guy who just let's drop a new element to the storyline that changes everything. The effects were revolutionary, even after the original Star Wars and the new characters - such as Yoda - wonderfully compliment and don't overshadow the established cast, but it is that boldness which makes this film so important. Big budget mainstream films could have a dark element and not have a happy ending. These would be concepts we would see taken on big time during the 2000s. With Empire, Lucas could also pay further homage to the chapter serial idea he had initially with Star Wars and give it a cliffhanger ending.
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