Category: My Top 25 Films

Dr Strangelove pic 1.

Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…”

Mention Peter Sellers as the star of your favourite film and you’d pretty much give the game away. In 1964 the iconic British comedy actor teamed up with Stanley Kubrick for a second time (following 1962’s Lolita) to play three central characters – including a hapless president and the mad doctor of the film’s title – in a movie that encapsulates the word ‘timeless’.

Honestly, I can watch Dr Strangelove now and see lessons in it which some world leaders are still slowly learning today. Nor is it only pertinent in a political sense, though. Recently there have been notable attacks on artistic freedom of expression – if one views this film in light of those events, they might just find something rather ironic; a film that, in its time, was more outrageous (and hilarious) than any light-hearted North Korean joke.

Kubrick’s satire subtly attacked the US government in a patriotic war-time environment. When certain prominent military generals were using propaganda to convince the average American citizen that the Soviets were to blame for everything, Kubrick was busy making fun of the whole thing. Dr Strangelove itself was labelled ‘Soviet propaganda’ at the time; a way of discrediting its claims regarding the American government, though in the years following it would emerge that the film was worryingly accurate, not least in its assertion that an Army general could theoretically launch a nuclear strike without the President’s authority.

In a tragic twist of fate, though one on which a certain amount of irony is not lost, the film’s first test screening was scheduled for November 22, 1963 – the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Subsequently, general release was delayed until January 1964, and thankfully Dr Strangelove survived to see a unique legacy formed. Hindsight has been kind to it, as seems the case with many artistic controversies.

2. Memento (2000)

Memento pic 1.

Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

Leonard Shelby is as unreliable a narrator as you’re likely to find – mainly because it is not only the audience that is unsure whether they can trust him, but Leonard himself. Suffering from a form of short term memory loss caused by thugs in an attack that also killed his wife, Leonard (played by Guy Pearce in what I consider his signature role) lives only for revenge, surviving each day by taking celluloid pictures and writing endless amounts of notes to keep track of where he’s just been and where he wants to go next.

Memento was Christopher Nolan’s second feature film, before he became best known for his Dark Knight trilogy and mind boggling, big budget epics. For me it’s still his best work, and certainly his most innovative.

In order to keep us in the same state of disorientation as the protagonist, the film’s scenes are shown in reverse order, meaning we see what happens before knowing what came before it. This was more than a simple gimmick designed to catch the audience’s attention, though; it did that for sure, but those who’ve watched the entire film and seen the final scene understand that its structure is essential in delivering quite a unique final twist.

In the end, the movie leaves you wondering whether it’s really convinced by its own rules – a nice narrative element further developed with multiple viewings. Memento is definitely one of my ‘most watched’; though I refuse to watch the alternative version, which shows the scenes in chronological order. That is not how this movie should be viewed, and even after all these years of knowing it, I still feel I wouldn’t want to spoil it for myself next time.

3. Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko pic 1.

Why do you wear that stupid man suit?”

Death. Time travel. Mental health. Religion. The end of the world, communicated with a wry sense of humour. Combine these elements and you have the rough outline of Donnie Darko, a 2001 American independent movie by first-time director Richard Kelly. You could say this film also boasts my favourite movie soundtrack – in that area it certainly is the standout of my top 3, as you’ll soon see.

While Jake Gyllenhaal has gone on to produce arguably more accomplished performances, Donnie Darko – in which he played the psychologically troubled title character – is still, for me, his best all-round film. It is one of the most multi-layered movies I know, though Gyllenhaal’s edgy portrayal of Donnie, a boy in his late teens who has ’emotional issues’, represents perhaps the most important of its thematic components. Few other films have tackled mental illness with such audacity and ambiguity in equal measure.

Also part of the cast was Jake’s real-life big sister Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played his sister in this film as well and whom (I don’t mind saying) I find to be one of Hollywood’s most naturally beautiful actresses. But of course that has nothing to do with my rating this film so highly. Nothing at all.

Usual Suspects pic 1.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Growing up in the 1990s I realise I may be a little biased, but I consider that decade one of the strongest for American cinema. The Usual Suspects was, for me, the peak of this time. Best known for the two things for which it justifiably won two Academy Awards – those being Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor – the story is told in flashbacks as Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), the sole survivor of a freighter explosion, is interrogated by police.

Enter the name Keyser Soze, not only within the film’s narrative but into the world of pop culture in general; a mysterious crime lord whom few people have ever seen. Those who’ve heard of him speak his name in fear. Even those who don’t believe he exists greet any suggestion of his involvement with trepidation and wariness. Such is his mythical presence and power, whether based on actual fact or not.

Of course the film’s famous final scene is what throws everything up in the air. It is revealed that Kint himself was an untrustworthy narrator; most of the story (or perhaps all of it) seemingly his fabrication, mixed with just enough necessary facts to be convincing. We really have no way of knowing how much of his story is true; but it is the only version we see.

It is Kint who tells the story of Keyser Soze, using the quote above when describing him. In the end, my reading of the situation is that it’s a double bluff; Soze is Verbal Kint’s creation, rather than the other way around, and the idea of the character becomes, arguably like the devil himself, a myth. The devil’s greatest trick may indeed have been convincing the world he didn’t exist, but more impressive is he who creates a convincing devil in the first place.

5. Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai pic 1.

Find hungry samurai.”

Such is the premise of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai: a farming village, under threat from bandits, desperately resorts to the unattractive prospect of hiring a group of ‘ronin’ (samurai without a master) to protect them from the next disastrous raid. Unattractive because of the 16th century Japanese class distinctions that Kurosawa intelligently plays on throughout this three-hour epic; a film that, in many ways, provided a template for modern Hollywood big budget spectacles.

This was Akira Kurosawa’s longest film, but one barely notices the time going in. It is also considered by many to be the director’s best, and I certainly find it hard to argue with that line of thought. The film’s characters are so well fleshed out, individually and as part of the group dynamic, that you bond with them effortlessly over the course of the movie to the point where you’ll soon feel part of the disjointed family yourself.

Disjointed is unmistakably what the group of this film’s title represents, spearheaded by Toshiro Mifune as the humorous Kikuchiyo, a samurai who starts off as the joker of the group and eventually proves himself an adequate warrior later on. This was one of Mifune’s signature roles; Japan’s equivalent of what would be a major Hollywood movie star today.

Seven Samurai more than matches most films American cinema has produced since the 1950s; many of their movies owe at least some debt to this classic Japanese period drama/ adventure, including a direct adaptation of the story in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which replaced the samurai with a group of cowboys. Yet I would still often take this old classic over the epics that followed it.

6. Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead pic 1.

In Heaven, everything is fine. You’ve got your good things. And I’ve got mine.”

Eraserhead is a strange film, there’s no doubting that, but despite appearances, it is not a random one. Behind everything it does is some kind of meaning, however obscure it may first seem. As David Lynch’s directorial debut, it also set the tone for what the man’s work would become known for: surrealism, metaphor and psychological storytelling.

Jack Nance plays Henry Spencer, an aloof man who comes across as a victim of circumstance. The entire film gives off the aura of a half-sleeping dream, perhaps Henry’s dream, or that of someone else in which he is merely a helpless participant. Regardless, much of the experience (an experience is definitely what this film is) features Henry’s subconscious projections of his paternal insecurities and sexual frustrations.

This kind of storytelling would later repeat itself in the Silent Hill series (the first two of which I often refer back to as among my favourite video games). Numerous tenets of that series were borrowed from Eraserhead; from its thematic components and stylised body horror, to the overall juxtaposition of surrealist imagery in an industrial landscape.

Is it a film capable of being appreciated by a wide audience? Clearly a wide enough one, for it to have gained such a favourable reputation in mainstream circles. Yet at the same time, Eraserhead has a niche style that won’t be for everyone. I kind of like it that way.

7. Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver pic 1.

Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

Travis Bickle is truly one of the most complex characters in Hollywood cinema history. Here is a man who would not take it any more, and would use his anger towards the perceived trash of society for a final act of righteousness… or not, depending on your point of view.

For all the controversy Taxi Driver’s violent final act caused upon its release, the film is most intriguing as a psychological study of what loneliness and a feeling of ‘not belonging’ can do to an average man. Here, Robert De Niro plays the lead character in a role that remains among his best (though another of his famous partnerships with Scorsese, 1980’s Raging Bull, probably just snatches that honour).

It was offensive for sure, but I believe appropriately so. If one felt terribly offended by the vulgar content of Travis’ private monologues, which gave the audience a valuable insight into his increasingly vulnerable psyche, I daresay it was only because they took it to be directed towards them in some way. Perhaps Travis was intending to talk to you directly. Or maybe you simply disagree with his outlook and methods.

But if Taxi Driver conveys one thing better than most other films, it is the nature of subjectivity. Travis’ thoughts and feelings are exactly that; his own. What the movie does so well is insightfully let you know how, and why Travis develops those thoughts and feelings based on his surroundings. In the end, one could possibly feel slightly sorry for him, or dislike him – though you will at least understand him.

2001 pic 1.

Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

Go on, roll your eyes. Many people do, when I name drop 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of my favourite films. I understand as well; this movie does come across as primarily ‘one for the critics’ (unless your name was Pauline Kael).

But this film, arguably Stanley Kubrick’s most influential, was much more (and less) than an odyssey of groundbreaking visual effects and high minded philosophical ideas. It came with a classical Hollywood soundtrack – yet was also realistically silent for large portions. In HAL 9000 it had one of cinema’s great understated antagonists.

The film needs little plot synopsis. It is very much an experience, as much one as any other you’re ever likely to have in a cinema. I’m fortunate enough to be able to say I have seen it in that setting; I know many others of my generation have not. With a little imagination I’m sure you can share my sentiment though.

Love it, hate it, or feel indifferent about it, but if there’s one thing for sure, you certainly won’t forget 2001 once its classic imagery of space and the wider universe has forged itself onto the back of your thankful retinas.

9. Pulse (2001)

Kairo pic 2.

Death was… eternal loneliness.”

I’ll admit it. To list Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (known as Kairo in Japan) as one of my ‘favourite’ films was a decision I had my doubts about. This is a film you do not ‘enjoy’ so much as ‘uncomfortably endure with admiration’ for its 2-hour running time. It is a depressing film in which you witness multiple suicides (though not too explicitly); its main theme is loneliness, and most of its characters ultimately lose the will to live. And the scariest thing about all of it is that you’re not quite sure why. They aren’t driven to despair by tragic life events, nor are they lonely because they have no friends or lack connection per se.

Rather, the main problem in Pulse seems, in a sense, over-connection. It touches on that intrinsic truth most of us know but some would prefer to deny: technological interaction, whether through the Internet or over the phone, cannot match the value of real human company. People can be surrounded by many friends across the world in today’s technological age, yet still be haunted by a certain type of loneliness due to lacking face-to-face time.

But of course this issue is a circular one. Technology is not really the problem; our love for its convenience is. The more time one spends interacting with it, the more awkward the alternative becomes, until a point arrives when they no longer remember what it is like to have real contact with others. They no longer recognize the benefits of that, and before you know it, it is the face-to-face moments that become nothing more than a passing ‘how are you?’ followed by awkwardness if the socially acceptable answer is not the one you get.

Such thoughts are the kind that Pulse prompts you (or at least me) to consider, communicated in a despairing manner with a plot that revolves around ghosts invading the world of the living through the Internet. Despairing, mainly because it offers no helpful answer to the dilemma it presents; its ending is as depressing as the rest of the film, if not more so. In this cinematic fantasy world of fairy tales and happy endings, though, I am perfectly fine with such a change of pace.

The technological theme was prevalent among other popular J-horror movies – Ring (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) – but Pulse’s approach was somewhat unique. In a sense it reversed the source of our fear, its main cause for concern not the spirits haunting us but rather, human psychology and our own emotional fragility.

Probably not a film to casually enjoy while relaxing with some mates at the weekend then; nonetheless I consider Pulse to be something of a masterpiece in its own right.

10. Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla pic 1.

You have a responsibility that no man has ever faced. You have your fear, which could become reality, and you have Godzilla, which is reality.”

It’s the iconic roar that does it for me. The original Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda, saw the introduction of cinema’s most popular kaiju (literally translated ‘monster’). Godzilla as a character, having gone on to star in a further 28 Toho films and 2 American remakes, has since evolved far beyond its contextual origins, seen here in a film made just 9 years after two atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the closing stages of the second World War.

Birthed by nuclear radiation, Godzilla’s first path of destruction through Japan was very much meant as an overtly obvious metaphor for the disasters that had recently rocked the nation, and it aimed to communicate a clear anti-nuclear message. This message at times bordered on preachiness when conversed through the film’s often awkward dialogue, while its special effects weren’t nearly as revolutionary as RKO Pictures’ King Kong (1933) released twenty years prior. So then how exactly has Godzilla found itself so high in my list?

Well, say what you want about the film’s faults, but one word sums up what it conveyed better than any other of its time: power. Great, destructive power, as Godzilla rampages through the streets of Tokyo like the unstoppable beast he was. You’re not going to convince me there was anything more intimidating in all of cinema at the time, and it’s arguable whether modern CGI can truly come close to recreating that feeling of seeing a real, tangible creature (man in a suit or not) crushing a model city. Certainly the recent American movie, which I reviewed last year, merely did an adequate job of it. And if I’m being honest, it really is that iconic instrumental roar that mostly does it for me.