Monday, 12 January 2009

And honourable mention goes to...

At this point in the New Year, a chance to mention some of those that I could have included in this list of 100 favourites, and therefore deserve some sort of recognition all their own:

The Accused (1988)
The first "adult" (ie. "18" certificate) film that I saw in the cinema, classified so because of the harrowing matter-of-fact rape scene at the end. As a legal thriller the plot's pretty one-dimensional, the real intention being to make a powerful statement about general attitudes towards rape victims. It also introduced me for the first time to the re-emerging talent of Jodie Foster, shedding her "child star" image to become one of America's best actresses.

The African Queen (1951)
I'm slightly amazed I haven't included this in my original 100 list. Bogart and Hepburn made for unlikely screen chemistry but were a perfect example of opposites attracting beautifully. The moment when Bogart's Canadian (changed from Cockney) boatman realises Ms. Hepburn's Rosie is still alive - and incriminates himself in the process - is one of the most joyously affecting moments in cinema. And all this in torrid conditions when director John Huston (who's also on top form) was more interested in shooting elephants than movies (as the film White Hunter Black Heart suggests.)

The Age of Innocence (1993)
Martin Scorsese's subtlest film, still rich in texture and with a great cast (many of them Brits) headed by Daniel Day-Lewis (now a Scorsese favourite), Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder.

A.I. (2001)

Steven Spielberg's requiem to Stanley Kubrick is one of the strangest versions of
Pinocchio you're ever likely to see, but its timing (not long after September 11th) was eerie, and I felt very haunted about the fragile state of human existence when I walked out of the cinema that afternoon.

Alien (1979)
Can't say I really liked this film at first - Ridley Scott is just too manipulative both of his audience and his actors - but watching the non-director's approved "Special Edition" in 2003 was an eye-opener, restoring the missing scene with the ill-fated Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) giving the character a much more satisfying "closure" and for me, elevating the film towards the level of a classic which it is generally regarded.

American Graffiti (1973)
Some would say this is George Lucas's best film: certainly his warmest and most nostalgic, with some of his best ensemble cast performances, from the likes of Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith (a dead ringer for the young Lucas), and Harrison Ford - whatever became of him?

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
I sometimes wish there were more directors like John Landis who would come over here and make stirring pastiche comedy horror films, when we British are just a little too austere or too hard-edged for that.

The Angry Silence (1960)
Filmed partly in Ipswich (at the Ransomes tractor factory), and I remember seeing it at the Ipswich Film Theatre because of the local connection. A little dated perhaps (a more po-faced version of I'm All Right Jack), but its potency for the time still comes across. Richard Attenborough follows a familiar personal theme of his - social injustice - as the worker who is ostracised by his workmates (and worse) for walking through the picket lines for the sake of his young family.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
"The best ever film about Vietnam", shot shortly after the end of the conflict itself, is too expensive, too noisy and makes little sense - much like the war itself, some thought. However, nothing that Francis Ford Coppola does is ever dull (or wasn't up till then), and among the film's supporting players - in perhaps his last "obscure" role - was Harrison Ford (as "Colonel Lucas") just after he had finished making a film called Star Wars. I had the good fortune to see the "Redux" version of this film at the Empire Leicester Square, cementing its place as a near-favourite.

Arachnophobia (1990)
Jaws for arachnophobes; one of the best monster movies of recent times, playing on people's widespread fear of spiders, without overly manipulating the audience or turning too nasty. My Mum watched five minutes of this on video, until the scene where a spider leapt straight on the camera lens, and she was gone: a true test of a scary, but fun, film.

Awakenings (1990)
Robin Williams and Robert De Niro give powerful performances as doctor and unconscious patient respectively, in a story based closely on fact. De Niro as always is excellent (the first time I'd seen him in a film that was less than a '15' certificate), but the real revelation is Williams as the doctor (based on Oliver Sacks), completely shedding his funnyman trademark, and playing a genuinely warm, vulnerable, sympathetic human being. The ending is also refreshingly unsentimental.

Babes in Toyland (1934)
One of my favourite Laurel & Hardy features, although not necessarily one of their best comedies. Here they are the heroes (comedic ones of course) "Stannie Dum" and "Ollie Dee", at the house of the Old Lady Who Lived In The Shoe, helping Bo Peep and Tom-Tom the Piper's Son to overcome the evil Barnaby (an excellent sinister performance by William Brandon), in what was perhaps the only "crossover" L&H film where they dabbled into the fantasy genre. Three versions of this operetta have been made, but this one is the best.

Back to the Future (1985)
The appeal of this time travel comedy came to me late, in the 1990s (after the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit), so I went Back to the Past to see it in Rep at the Ipswich Film Theatre. Not only is it a nostalgic evocation of the 1950s and a lively comedy fantasy, but also demonstrates how older people are never quite what you thought they were when young.

Battle of Britain (1969)
This would have been one of my top 100 favourites, but the battle scenes in the air are just too confusing (how does Michael Caine die exactly?), and the film also feels rather 1960's instead of 1940's. Laurence Olivier however gives my personal favourite performance of his, as Air Chief Vice Marshal Dowding (the first real-life character Olivier played that was still alive at the time), and the stirring music was composed by William Walton - controversially replaced by Ron Goodwin. The DVD has both scored versions of the film.

Before Sunrise (1995)
Ethan Hawke meets Julie Delpy on a train travelling through Europe, they chat amiably and decide to walk around Vienna together; that's the plot in effect, refreshingly free of "drama" or any sensationalist aspects, and rekindling the notion of romance in a very real, engaging way. I defy anyone not to relate to such a situation in real life. Together with its sequel BEFORE SUNSET (2004) where the two characters meet up again in Paris, this duo are a couple of minor classics.

Ben-Hur (1925)
The original and best version - chariot race included - of Edgar Wallace's yarn about a rich Jew who is affected by the life of Jesus - amply demonstrating why biblical epics were so much better in the silent days. I saw this version the first time at the Royal Festival Hall, with Carl Davis live on stage conducting his own stirring score with the London Philarmonic Orchestra.

Big (1988)

Tom Hanks' best performance - relatively early in his career - capturing expertly the personality of a 12-year old in an adult body. There were several Hollywood "body-swap" films at the time for some reason, but this one is by far the best, thanks to a decent script and Penny Marshall's sympathetic direction.

The Big Country (1958)
The distinctive opening music by Jerome Moss instantly conveys the atmosphere of the Wild West, and the story's a gripping mixture of Shakespearian feudal tragedy and Cold War allegory, as Gregory Peck inherits an ongoing conflict between the upstanding Tyrrells and the gruff, bullish Hennesseys (Burl Ives is on great form as their boss.)

The Big Red One (1980)
My favourite of Mark Hamill's films outside of the Star Wars saga, as a rookie member of Lee Marvin's platoon in the US Army 1st Infantry (hence the title), who discovers on the field of battle that he cannot bring himself to kill another man (and who hasn't wondered about that?) until however, he visits his first Concentration Camp, and decides to shoot a German soldier using all his bullets. Samuel Fuller tells the (autobiographical) story of war in a no-nonsense, truthful fashion, as neither the glamorous or horror-filled environment it is often perceived to be.

Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott's cult sci-fi is a triumph of design over story - not much of which makes any sense: Harrison Ford's Marlowe-ish cop Frank Deckard hunts down robot "replicants", whilst Rutger Hauer as their leader decides to hunt Deckard down too. The 1991 "Director's Cut" vastly improved on the original's happy ending (lampooned in Brazil), but I confess I still miss the much derided narration.

The Blue Lamp (1950)
Ealing's classic crime drama. The word "bastard" was used in a British film for the first time because it was describing a man who had shot PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) who became a jovial enough figure to be revived for the long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green. I sometimes wish that Britain could make more films like this - gritty crime dramas with a careful moral compass. Then again, I wish Britain would make more films. Period.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
Loud, noisy and action-packed - like some of the numbers (with several notable guest appearances by Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, etc.) - this was perhaps the dying gasp of the Hollywood film musical, in very modern clothes. By the time I came to it (decades after first release) it was already a cult item, and a frequent slot at 11pm on Saturday nights. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had echoes of Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello about them (although both those comedy pairings were better), and their onetime soulmate Carrie Fisher was at her feistiest (outside of Princess Leia)
as a vengeful beautician at the "Curl Up and Dye" Salon.

Chicago (2002)
Rob Marshall's musical high heels and lethal ladies extravaganza, quite faithfully adapted to the screen and heavy with influences of Bob Fosse and
Cabaret, which I found nostalgic. It brought Catherine Zeta-Jones her first Oscar, and helped me through a slightly difficult time at the beginning of 2003 with its cheerful cynicism and flambuoyant style. Also the first film I saw at the new Odeon Colchester multiplex.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Every critic features this on a 100 Best list, so I suppose I have to as well. It’s more a film that I admire and respect than adore, however. Orson Welles’s cinematic tricks are wonderfully inventive (thanks also to Gregg Toland’s superb photography), but tricks just the same, more than plot, and Welles himself enjoys being the centre of attention just a little too much. That twist ending is great, but even that was out of compromise between Welles and fellow writer Herman Mankiewicz.

Dad's Army (1971)
The feature film of the classic TV series followed a fashion for rushing out variably amusing spin-offs of hit comedy shows in the 1970's, and was admittedly a little overstretched in its thin plot (the first third was merely recycling the first TV episode), but the regulars were all present and correct and on good comic form. I've since visited some of the locations used for this film, including the lovely village of Chalfont St. Giles, the Dover Cliffs, and Littleton Church - just outside Shepperton Studios (see pictures).

The Devil Rides Out (1967)

Christopher Lee's favourite Hammer film, cast against type as the dynamic hero battling Satanists, which makes his presence all the more effective with the horror confronted, epitomised by Charles Gray as the smoothly ruthless Mocata. The cast in Terence Fisher's commendably straight-faced drama also included Paul Edington and Sarah Lawson.

Digby the Biggest Dog in the World (1973)
One that I first enjoyed on children's TV in the 1970's, then happened to see at the Ipswich Film theatre years later, its humour and its quaintness undiminished.

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Time has withered my impression of this Spielberg epic, especially in the light of his subsequent masterwork
Schindler's List, but this is still a sumptuous work, a little languid in parts, with the drawn out scenes in an internment camp reminiscent of an episode of Tenko, but the young Christian Bale is excellent as the boy who treats the war as one big adventure - at first - and Spielberg and J.G. Ballard seem as one in terms of the film's imagination.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Apathy and partial jealousy prevented me from seeing this film on its first release. As the Empire Strikes Back blog will explan, I'd turned away from the cinema, and the notion that this was an even bigger film than
Star Wars also prompted a certain amount of antipathy. Curiosity and the skill of Steven Spielberg's direction won me over in time however (the video release didn't come along until as late as 1987.) Despite a certain amount of cloying sentiment and parts of the film that lag, it is by and large a classic of entertainment, and so simple yet so grand in its concept. I finally got round to seeing E.T. in the cinema in 2002 - a partially revamped "Special Edition" which thankfully didn't change too much, and helped blow away the blues of the Queen Mother's death at the time.

Eroica (2003)
It doesn't seem to me that there's been a really good film about my favourite classical composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven: Immortal Beloved had a stab at it, but dwelt on speculation and the women in Beethoven's life, although Gary Oldman gave a good account of himself. But this BBC film is perhaps the closest it has come so far to a decent biopic. The real star is the 3rd ("Eroica") Symphony itself, played in its entirety throughout the film.

Etre et Avoir (2002)
A beautiful French documentary about a small country pre school, all about the joys of early learning and the first building blocks of life. One typically charming moment is where a pet tortoise crawls slowly through the classroom while the snow rages outside. I can see why teacher friends took up the profession after seeing this film.

Evita (1996)
After 20 years waiting for a film adaptation of Tim Rice and Andrew Lord Webber's hit stage musical, Alan Parker did a more than creditable job, and even more surprisingly he etched out a suitably spirited star performance from Madonna, in perhaps her one and only film to effectively unite her talents as both actress and singer. This was also the most recent case of a full blown cinematic opera, and the wall-to-wall music (in Dolby Digital sound) made for a full-blown cinematic experience - together with a trailer for the 1997 Star Wars Special Editions, it's one I remember vividly.

Falling Down (1992)

I'd often wondered what it would be like to do a film about an ordinary everyday man taking his own personal revenge on the world around him (especially during the 1980's.) Michael Douglas's "D-Fens" wasn't quite that "ordinary", as plot details later reveal him to be psychologically disturbed as well as unemployed, but it was a compelling performance in a wry black comedy action drama, where he rampages across urban LA pursued by Robert Duvall's retiring detective (on his last day of course). "I'm the bad guy?", Douglas ironically asks as he and Duvall showdown at the end. I borrowed some of Douglas's look for a similar character I played in a stage play, Nasty Neighbours in 1995.

Flash Gordon (1980)

This is a cult favourite, and although hardly in the same league as Star Wars (George Lucas himself tried and failed to secure the rights to Flash Gordon years before), it has many exuberant elements such as Max Von Sydow's majestically evil Ming the Merciless, a young Timothy Dalton as dashing Prince Barin, the stunning Ornella Muti as Ming's daughter, and a sountrack by Queen. Brian Blessed thinks it's the greatest film ever made (so a friend tells me), and you can't can blame him, as he gives such a hearty performance as Vultan. Director Mike Hodges was brought into this typically overblown Dino de Laurentiis production of a comic strip - and that's exactly how he chose to make it.

From Beyond the Grave (1973)

One of my favoruite Peter Cushing films, even though he's mainly a linking device as a sleazy antiques dealer to a series of dubious customers who await grizzly ends to their ill-gotten gains, in what I think is the best of Amicus's horror compilations. Among the stories were David Warner and Ian Ogilvy compelled to commit murder by ghosts hidden within the antiques, Ian Carmichael and Margaret Leighton hamming it up in the comedy segment, and both Donald Pleasence and his daughter Angela in a macabre little tale of murder with Ian Bannen and Diana Dors.

Galaxy Quest (1999)
A wonderful fusion of spoof and homage to Star Trek, as Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman play former TV sci-fi actors now reduced to doing the convention circuit, until they are hurled into a real life Galaxy Quest and have to call upon the strengths of the characters they played. Anyone who's been to a few sci-fi conventions or sat through a few episodes of Star Trek will recognise the jokes.

Gallipoli (1981)

The first video rental I saw (courtesy of my Dad) in the mid-80's was this rambling but powerful - if anti-British - war drama about two friends cajoling each other into joining up to fight the Turks at Gallipoli in World War I. The final image of youth lost on the battlefield (to the music of Albinoni's Adagio) is as heart-rending as they come.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

The first Gremlins had something of a 1980's feel to it, with some of Spielberg's sentiment tinged with darkness and Joe Dante's enthusiasm for horror pastiche: the sequel choose not to top it, but instead piled on a whole series of in-jokes and a typically surreal moment when the Gremlins get into the projection room (or the video machine, depending on your viewing media), done in a general healthy atmosphere of 1990's niceness. Composer Jerry Goldsmith even puts in an appearance, and the credits are presided over by Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and (mostly) Daffy Duck!

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
The first Woody Allen film that I got round to seeing, and it's a clever mixture of wit and pathos (although
Crimes and Misdemeanours was even cleverer.) The cast included Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Diane Wiest, Max Von Sydow, and of course, Mia Farrow, and Allen himself, who's on great form, and also as director selects some great music (mostly jazz). Need I say more? It also showed me for the first time that Michael Caine can really act when the right script comes along. The scene where he tells Hershey he loves her, and senses an element of reciprocation, is easily identifiable.

Howards End (1991)
The best, certainly my favourite of all the Mercant-Ivory period pieces from the 80s/90s which, regardless of their artistic merit or lack of contemporary resonance, always had the indellible stamp of quality. The ever reliable Helena Bonham Carter played a feisty English rose, and the film did wonders for the career of Emma Thompson, whilst I strongly related to the character of Leonard Bast (Samuel West), and E.M.Forster's novel did have something to say about the class system which still strikes home with society today.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955)

The original and best version of Jack Finney's Body Snatchers short story, with Kevin McCarthy conveying a gripping portrait of gradually mounting terror as he sees all that he knows around him transformed into cold-hearted strangers inhabited by aliens. Director Don Siegel creates the maximum amount of horror and suspense with the least amount of gore or special effects. A "happy" ending of sorts was added by the studio but frowned upon by most fans, although poor Kevin surely deserved some sort of recompense after all his rushing around; come the 1978 remake, he was still warning the citizens of San Francisco of the oncoming danger.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
This is one of the most terrifying films ever made. Though the plot is crazy, it's too scary
not to believe it couldn't happen - especially with all that we now know about Communist infiltration and attempts at brainwashing during the Cold War. Frank Sinatra is the traumatized Korean War veteran who can't understand why he so idolizes fellow veteran Laurence Harvey - a war "hero" who is prepared to kill indiscrimately at the merest gentle request from the true villain of the piece, Angela Lansbury. Jonathan Demme directed a variable remake updating the story for the Iraq War, but there's no way he could have topped the sinister atmosphere John Frankenheimer created for the original.

Mars Attacks! (1996)
Released coincidentally (and unfortunately) the same year as Independence Day, which celebrated the American Way, whereas this Martian invasion trashes it. The fact that the film flopped is testament to the fact that an all-star cast and an overconfident prodcution team are no guarantee of box office success, although Tim Burton clearly was having a ball, as too were Jack Nicholson (in 2 roles a la Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove), Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short, and others (even Tom Jones). Natalie Portman as the President's daughter is left behind at the end of the devastation to reward Lukas Haas as the gawky hero who has discovered the secret weapon (and it's a hoot) to destroy the Martians - much more fun than the resolution to Independence Day. At the time I first saw it, I felt this was going to become a cult classic.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

Back in the 1970s like most kids I was brought up in the cinema on a regular diet of Disney films, most of which were the classics from the 1940s. This one resembled a 1940s classic too, except that to my later surprise, I found that it was a much more recent entry in the Disney canon. The moment when a crook accidentally grabs hold of a cat's neck instead of a wine bottle delighted me at the time, I remember. I also secretly enjoyed Stephen Herek's live action remake (he of Bill & Ted fame) in 1996 with Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson, with Hugh Laurie and Simon Williams as Laurel & Hardy-style crooks.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The great Lon Chaney in probably the most famous of all his many cinematic rogues, and the best (Andrew Lloyd withstanding) of all the adaptations of Gaston Leroux's novel. The scene where the Phantom's hideous face under the mask is revealed still packs a hell of a punch. Imagine how it felt for audiences in 1925.

Poltergeist 3 (1988)
No great classic in its own right, I freely admit - following the law of diminishing returns as sequels go - with only Heather O'Rourke reprised from the original family of Poltergeists 1 and 2. But this was the first horror fim I saw in the cinema. On a wet afternoon in the Odeon Colchester, it had me hiding behind my seat with terror on many occasions. The scariest (and saddest) thing about was the end credit: a tribute to Heather O'Rourke, who died after the making of the film, at the age of only 13.

The Road to Perdition (2002)
This was the last film I saw at the old Odeon Colchester, and it has a suitable feeling of pathos about it. Sam Mendes is a good theatre director, who I find as a film-maker is overrated. Certainly American Beauty was, but here his poetic touches add something to this gangster saga approaching Greek tragedy, as Tom Hanks plays the hitman who grimly has to take vengeance on his father figure of a boss (Paul Newman) because his real son (the psychopathic Daniel Craig) has murdered Hanks' family. Newman and Hanks are moving and powerful, and even the OTT presence of Jude Law can't spoil this from being a classic.

Seven Days to Noon (1950)
I remember first seeing this on the telly one random Thursday afternoon, like the average British film you'd see every now and then, only this one drew you in more and more. Part of its effect is how someone as humble looking as Barry Jones could set the whole of London on Red Alert, as he threatens to blow up the capital with an atomic device if the arms race is not stopped. The Boulting Brothers crank up the tension and also provide many moments of ensemble character light relief.

A futuristic paean to nostalgia and lost memories by Wong Kar Wai (his first American road movie
My Blueberry Nights was a less successful but nonetheless interesting variation on the subject.) The title refers to the year when Hong Kong will complete its transfer from the UK over to China, so it's a suitably melancholic time to reflect on past and future. The Sars virus broke out in Hong Kong at the time, abandoning the original production, so Wai rejigged it into a sequel to his previous film In the Mood for Love, with Tony Leung as a womanising but reclusive writer who pens his futuristic 2046 novel. A film better for general atmosphere than overall content, and it also has a great soundtrack CD that I often play.


.....and I'll think I'll have to stop there, as there's still another 50 near-favourites that I still haven't yet mentioned, and believe me, there are probably another 100 out there that I could have further enthused about, that I may well have missed out!

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films