Spirited Away. The most complexly melancholy ‘children’s movie’ I know, and one of the most visually imaginative. Perfect, if a movie can be perfect.
Southland Tales. A ecstatic psychedelic-apocalyptic mess, eagerly courting ridicule, with the curious haunted quality of Kelly’s precocious Donnie Darko but none of that movie’s emotional maturity or restraint. In some sense, surely the most Phildickian film ever.
She Hate Me. A symphony like the more coherent Bamboozled, where Do the Right Thing was a taut chamber piece. I jokingly call Southland Tales ‘the white She Hate Me,’ which is to say they’re both ‘fantasias on national themes’ (cf. Angels in America) which seem to resemble, too closely for viewer comfort, the interiors of their respective creators’ heads.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This one holds an odd place in the pantheon: in some respects it’s a Western arthouse film, with the familiar emotional palette and granularity of an episode of Mad Men, but which happens to be about wuxia movies. Luckily it’s also a superb wuxia specimen. I fell for this one in the theater, where the crowd burst into applause after the first fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Few ‘action films’ have so expertly communicated the emotional states and stakes of their martial sequences. Yuen Wo Ping’s fight choreography inspires awe, but you’ve seen The Matrix so you knew that. What matters is that the fight scenes are also the most emotionally compelling dramatic exchanges in this (moving) film, even for a Western viewer — they’re shot, cut, and acted to tell perfectly formed stories. There are more visually arresting movies in its artsy-wuxia niche, but none that so effortlessly incorporate Western dramatic arts.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? My lit-theory professor told me each Coen Bros film was a play on a time and a place — they’re moving portraits of cultural moments, real and imagined. O Brother portrays the mythology of the Depression-era South. You can turn off the gorgeous visuals, ignore the snappy dialogue and egoless acting, and marvel at the sound: it’s a musical, the best of modern times, with the most thematically coherent (also beautiful) soundtrack of all. Better and deeper than its reputation.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Two unique creators at the height of their powers, served by a master actress and an extraordinary (and widely misused and misunderstood) comic actor, tell a simple story about falling in love and falling out of love. The final movement is shattering. On a date early in our relationship, my not-yet-wife scolded me for being ‘demonstrative’ by sighing constantly during this film. She was right and can piss off.
Gremlins. The great Christmas movie of the 80s.
E.T. The scientists. And then the bicycle.
Ghostbusters. OK yes: funny, groovy, mean spirited, with heaping doses of perfect eliptonic twaddle and two genuinely creepy scenes. And OK yes, Bill Murray. But not Bill Murray, master comic improviser, which everybody already knows about. This is glory: Bill Murray, dramatic improviser, suddenly turning in celebratory circles in the park as the music swells and Sigourney Weaver walks away smiling. What are the chances that a high-concept comic romp with half a script could offer a throwaway moment of romantic perfection?
Hedwig & the Angry Inch. Blah blah ‘not real rock & roll’ and the final song suffers somewhat for being sung by Trask instead of Mitchell. But what other film works at this particular pitch?
Magnolia. Go ahead and make fun, and I’ll just sit here and enjoy watching a perfectly realized work of musical and dramatic and cinematic art, deliriously in love with its own voice, which climaxes in the middle with the wordless administration of a dropper full of morphine by a hospice nurse.
Some imaginary combination of the Matrix films. If I could cut the second and third films together in a way that would make you understand that the entire trilogy (and not just the first film) is a classic work of sci-fi, I would do so.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not perfect like Raiders, not wonderfully grotesque like Temple of Doom. But: ‘You left just when you were becoming interesting.’ And: ‘I thought I lost you, boy.’ (And come to think of it: ‘If you are Scottish, lord, then I am Mickey Mouse.’) The tank battle is one of the great action setpieces, the score is sweetly sad, and it should have ended here.
Stop Making Sense. The rapturous final batch of songs make the case for the boundary-shattering power of groove as eloquently as any weird little hyper-controlled art flick ever has.
La Jetee. Inseparable, in my mind, from the Left Bank film festival where I first saw it — well after being knocked over by Twelve Monkeys, which I like more but value less. And that one shot (if you know, you know) is, for me, a small sacred thing: the incarnation and withdrawal of a goddess.
High School. What does evil look like? Maybe it looks like the final frames of this extraordinary, essential, still-relevant documentary.
Fight Club. Weighed down by cultural baggage, none of it interesting, this film is no longer held in the esteem it deserves. Never mind that it’s a virtuosic catalogue of cinematic technique; never mind that it’s really funny; never mind that This Really Is How It Feels Sometimes. How many films ever move this swiftly and smartly for two hours?
Blade Runner. Here’s how much this movie does right: the three-hour audio remix from Don Joyce’s Over the Edge radio show is one of the classic works of sci-fi all by itself, even without the epochal visual design.
Punch-Drunk Love. That score. Those moving colour splashes. Several moments of such light and sweetness they’re nearly unbearable. Several sequences of profound, courageous discomfort. Two daft dialogue scenes between Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who couldn’t possibly be less well matched and yet and yet and yet and oh my God two of the most beautiful kisses ever put to film.
Princess Bride. You’d think it’d be enough, filming the best of all American movie swordfights. You’d think they’d’ve been satisfied, giving the world Vizzini’s mad hubristic Battle of Wits and the rise and fall and transformation and apotheosis of Inigo Montoya. But no. They insisted on wrapping those moments up in a flawless old-fashioned comedy. Bit of cheek, isn’t it.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Terry Gilliam’s film has a classic orchestral score (conducted with rare wit), a lovely little moebius-strip of a story, and a light-operatic whimsy which leavens and complements Gilliam’s characteristic visual grotesquerie.
The Empire Strikes Back. Meticulously staged expressionist art film, all vivid colours and expert genre pastiche and lightly handled iconic tableaux, referring to dimly remembered but irrelevant backstory. Or, in Andrew Rilstone’s (possibly misremembered-by-me) words: ‘…as if Leigh Brackett picked up George Lucas’s Star Wars action figures and started acting out Hamlet with them.’
Chungking Express. Shot for peanuts, half improvised, in a few weeks between takes of a bigger-budget film. Wong Kar-Wai has made better films (In the Mood for Love, for instance) but this is a tiny magic spell with as strong a sense of place as any other movie.
The Singing Detective. If I could preserve a single screen performance (that I’m aware of) of the 20th century, it’d be Michael Gambon’s.
Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. This is mastery. This is the old way. Jay is a singular human being, and this film of his stage show is the essential document of his unique art.