Tuesday, February 11, 2014

8 favorite movies

This was a hard list to put together. For starters, way more than eight movies could have gone on this list. It was also hard not to get bogged down in selection criteria. Note that this isn’t a list of “the eight best movies ever made” or “eight crucial moments in film history.” I don't consider myself qualified to make judgments like that, and even if I had the credentials I wouldn't have any idea where to begin.

To the extent that I’ve got criteria at all, the movies in this set have in common only that I own well-worn copies of all of them. I’ve watched them over and over again because of a particular way they make me feel. The emotion isn’t always happy, but it is uniformly strong.

Local Hero – Here’s the deal with this movie: as I said in the original review, you either get this picture or you don’t. It isn’t about story or character or special effects or anything most people expect from a movie. The plug on the poster says “A beautiful coastline … A rich oil man wants to develop it. A poor beach bum wants to live on it. An entire town wants to profit by it. And a real-live mermaid wants to save it … Only one of them will get their way.” Grammar and punctuation errors aside, that’s an accurate summary of the plot. But it’s by no means an adequate description of the experience. If you aren't able to sit back, watch, and appreciate it without demanding that it teach you something (or even expecting it to make sense all the time), it’s probably going to be an unpleasant experience for you. But accept it on its own terms, and it’s one of the best times you can have with a movie.

Dr. Strangelove – I don’t have a lot of comedies on this list, at least in part because jokes in general tend not to be as funny once you’ve heard them a time or two. And if that’s the standard, this shouldn’t amuse me at all. I’ve seen it so many times that I can do most of the dialogue along with the movie. Further, it’s a satire mocking a war that ended decades ago. But each time I see it is like the first time. The humor endures, aided in no small part by the quality of Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant visual work.

Blade Runner – I like – but do not love – both science fiction and film noir. However, there’s something about this combination of the two that works for me in a big way. It’s too sentimental by far, but Syd Mead’s design work and Ridley Scott’s skill at putting the visuals to work more than make up for the maudlin plot. I have a slight preference for the cut that doesn’t include the voiceovers, because I think they’re a little too self-consciously hard-boiled. But I’ll watch this picture in whatever form I can get it.

The Mission – Speaking of sentimental, this one’s a real tear-jerker. On the other hand, it’s visually stunning, featuring some of the most beautiful location work I’ve ever seen. I also feel comfortable with the dichotomy of theme. When faced with vile injustice, I find myself conflicted between belief in direct (even violent) resistance and nonviolence. Here the two protagonists approach the problem of slavery from different perspectives. The resolution, however tragic, has a lot to teach us.

The Seven Samurai – In general I’ve got only limited tolerance for subtitles. Though I prefer them to dubbing, I also don’t like to have to “read a movie.” But I was hooked on this one from the first time I saw it. Though I’d like to say that you can love this movie even if you don’t care for martial arts or Japanese feudal society, I can’t say that as an objective analysis. However, there is more to this picture than well-crafted visuals and flying swords of samurai death.

Dawn of the Dead – Several horror movies could have occupied this spot, but I ended up going with this one for several reasons. It’s the ultimate indie movie, proving that you can make a damn fine picture without a gazillion-dollar budget. All you need is a decent script and some talented actors. Even movies with much better special effects, editing, soundtracks and the like (including the 21st-century remake) aren’t anywhere near as good. And better yet, tucked neatly inside the zombie stuff are some valuable messages about class, race and gender.

Do the Right Thing – Speaking of race, here’s a movie that openly confronts social issues that most film-makers either ignore completely or smooth over for the sake of keeping audiences comfortable. Spike Lee’s direction is clever and innovative, expertly blending humor and grim seriousness in just the right doses.

Fargo – The list rounds out with another picture that blends humor and drama, this time from the Coen brothers. Movies packed with kidnapping, murder and other criminal shenanigans tend to be staffed with larger-than-life characters, but not here. Everyone in this picture could be someone you know (provided you live in a “fly-over state”), and it’s hard not to sympathize with them even when they’re being heinous. Like the first movie on this list, this is further proof that movies can be simple, quiet and great.