For the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen quite a few posts online about favorite things. Seven favorite television shows, fifteen most influential authors, that kind of thing. The problem I usually have is that my favorites change constantly, thanks to the chaotic mind I’ve been dealt.
So, instead of merely popping out a list of favorites, I thought I’d write about why these seven films are among my favorites. I could never list out my absolute favorites, that changes all the time. Not just because something new comes along, either. Sometimes I just think about a film one day, and think about a different one the next.
I might tell you that The Magnificent Seven is my favorite western right now. But as I was typing that, I had visions of Unforgiven, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Tombstone, and many others. Any one of those, and several others, could find themselves at the top of the list, only to be usurped in the next sentence.
Here are seven of my favorite films as of this writing. I chose most of them for their impact on what I do and how I think, and a bit on their longevity in my mind. Otherwise, recent films (for me anyway) like Deadpool, The Revenant, and Let The Right One In might be on the list. I’m even, heartbreakingly, not putting in Children of Men, Alien, or Die Hard, and a long list of others. Maybe in a few years I’ll rewrite it, and we’ll see what happens. They aren’t in any particular order, either, since that would take me the rest of the day to continually swap back and forth.
I didn’t see The Shawshank Redemption in the main theaters at the time, I waited for the $2 cheap seat theater. I’m not sure why, especially since I was a big fan of Stephen King at the time, and had read the original story. By the time I left the theater, it had become one of my favorite films, and it remains so today. I can’t imagine a favorites list without it, and it’s one of those films that I just have to sit and watch when it comes on.
Much of it is in, of course, the redemption of the title. It is hard earned, and sometimes difficult to watch. But there’s such a strong sense of story, and of characters, that is hard to look away from. I think when Morgan Freeman is onscreen, especially his speech of the two Italian ladies and his speech at the end, are magnificent examples of how a script and an actor’s delivery can offer up real magic.
The reason that Inception has proven its longevity so far is in the very scene depicted above. There was quite a lot of controversy, or at least discussion of, whether the top keeps spinning or not. Is Cobb still in the dream world, or is he truly, finally, awake? If this was a bad film, or at least not very well done, this last scene would have been completely forgotten. Does anyone remember the final scene of Batman Versus Superman? I don’t after only a few months, and I am even on the side of people who liked the film enough (at least a B grade).
Inception works wonderfully in every way. In a film with so many literal layers, so many characters, and a lot of things to keep track of, at no point was I not fully engaged in the film. Even Zimmer’s soundtrack is part of the layers, slowing down and speeding up within the confines of the dream layers. For me, as a budding fiction author, it is an essay in how to keep so many intricate parts not only moving, but continually intriguing the audience. The totem/spinning top is a perfect example. You’re even about to argue with me right now that I’m wrong, that he’s not back in the real world.
Despite the completely non-PC parts of Blazing Saddles (many of the worst things said were written by Richard Pryor), and the fact that it could never be remade today, it has influenced my idea of humor for nearly my entire life. It is part satire, part ludicrous slapstick, and deeply ladled in sarcasm. It’s also an extremely consistent, well written film, with as much character redemption as any other film.
I’ve always thought that some of the humor of modern film, the ones taking it to the extreme at least, saw the jokes in Blazing Saddles but not the point. The modern films take the bad words, and the offensive content, and just throw it out there. But Blazing Saddles gradually uses that offensiveness to change the characters that needed it, to highlight the villains even more.
I’ve been in love with John Carpenter’s The Thing since I first saw it back in the 80’s. For me, The Thing and Alien both offer masterclasses in tension, and in not knowing what is really out there to get you. There’s no wink to the audience, hardly any explanation other than what is needed, and the film isn’t only about jump scares. Modern filmmakers could learn about effective jump scares from the ones in this film.
What works so amazingly well in The Thing is the constant threat throughout the film. From the creepiest dog ever put on film, to the knowledge that any of the characters, at any time, might not be who you think they are. Every moment of the film is tense, just waiting for something awful to happen. Somehow, when it does, you aren’t ready for it.
Everyone talks about the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up as being the most depressing ever. That’s selling it completely short, since there is also a lot of humor and happiness throughout that time too. What those 10 minutes have is really an emotional base that not only sets up the humor and emotion for the rest of the story, but it also has more heart than other full features can put in their entire run time.
The rest of the film can get a little short shafted too, and is sometimes forgotten. It is a film that is hilarious, sad, and emotional, and provides an adventure worth getting invested in. There is real tension when Muntz begins to threaten Carl and Russell. There’s real heartbreak when Carl tells Dug that he is a bad dog, and redemption when he finally accepts him. It’s a great, emotional ride, one that I love to rewatch.
The depth of storytelling and of different viewpoints are simply stunning in Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno). Being able to follow two different storylines to their inevitable clash, and keep interest strong on both sides, is a wonderful feat. The film has huge ideas behind it, whether it is the fairy kingdom and the dark fantasy, versus the war raging on outside (and sometimes inside) the forest compound. There are the big, beautiful setpieces, like the always admired Pale Man scene, or the battles in the forest.
Where Pan’s Labyrinth truly shines though is that, despite the big elements, this is an intimate look at one little girl’s experience. Ofelia’s life starts and ends the film in the same spot, and along the way we find a girl simply trying to survive in a difficult world. She makes mistakes a young girl would, and yet still has the strength to move forward, to try to become someone even greater.
I have rewatched all of these films many times, but probably none as much as The Big Lebowski. Most of the time, it’s for the wonderful, sarcastic humor throughout. The range of humor, like many of the Coen brothers’ films, extends from simple slapstick through very dark humor. There is a reason why it is so heavily quoted among people these days.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the Coen brothers’ work is the way their cinematographers shoot their movies. Even the movies of theirs I don’t actually like, such as The Man Who Wasn’t There, are still beautifully shot. The Big Lebowski is no exception, and it’s one of the reasons I love it. They know where the camera should go to set up the joke, who to concentrate the frame on (and who not to), and generally keep things moving visually in interesting ways.
At least that’s, like, my opinion man.