13) The Birds
Couldn’t resist the temptation to make a Hitchcock film Number 13.
Although this is among Hitch’s best known films, it seemingly isn’t among his most liked despite being generally regarded as his last true classic. There are a couple of his films I prefer to this but I think it’s aged better than Psycho for example.
The plot is simple enough. Attractive young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meets lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop in San Francisco. Brenner is looking to buy a pair of lovebirds but the store has none in stock. Recognising Daniels, he plays a prank by pretending he thinks she’s a salesperson working in the store. Piqued by his cheekiness, she decides to get even by buying a couple of lovebirds herself and driving a couple of hours up the coast to sleepy Bodega Bay where she secretly delivers them to the door of his home. From the time she arrives in the small village however, things take a turn for the sinister. For reasons that are never explained, wild birds – crows, seagulls, sparrows – start to act bizarrely and seemingly attack the town’s residents.
For me, the film’s best attribute is its atmosphere. In terms of slowly building terror, the scene where Melanie sits outside the schoolhouse oblivious to the danger amassing around her is unsurpassed in any film I’ve seen and even if he’d never done anything else, would secure for me Hitchcock’s title as the ‘Master of Suspense’.
14) Touching The Void
In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two young, adventurous but reckless British mountaineers, attempted to scale the lethal west face of the 21,000 feet Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. And they did. But their duel with the mountain and its violent weather fluctuations was only half over – they needed to get down again. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that things didn’t go smoothly.
Based on the book of the same name written by Simpson, Touching The Void is a documentary rather than an action film. Kevin McDonald’s directorial decision to make the film in documentary style adds to it immensely in my view, for rather than trying to thrill viewers with “what’s going to happen next” scenes, it features interviews with both climbers (so we know from the start that both survived) interspersed with reconstructions of critical episodes from their expedition. This gives it a sense of realism which draws the viewer into the world of these two young men – just as it’s disintegrating. The film isn’t so much about their ordeal of itself as the primal instincts and emotions it engenders – loyalty and betrayal, belief and rejection, hope and despair, culpability and innocence, guilt and absolution. It’s also visually stunning and effectively so; the long shots of the climbers appearing like ants against the vast frozen expanses of their treacherous terrain is a constant reminder that both protagonists are well beyond the help of anybody but themselves.
Even if documentary films aren’t really your thing I’d highly recommend checking this one out.
15) Incendies (Canada – in French)
Starts off with a twin brother and sister attending the reading of the will of their recently deceased mother. They receive two letters and a request to deliver one of them to their father and the other to their brother. Only thing is so far as they know, their Dad is dead and they have no brother. The brother wants to forget about it but the sister feels compelled to carry out her mother's final wish and goes to an unnamed Middle East country (very obviously based on Lebanon) to find out about her past, of which they know very little other than that she left there about 20 years ago to start a new life in Quebec. From there the film flips back and forward from the present day to her mother's life during the civil war that engulfed that country from 1975 to 1990.
Very tough film in places (being set during a vicious conflict) but well worth watching. There's not much explaining of the background so if you know nothing whatsoever about Lebanon probably no harm to have a glance at wikipedia before looking at it, though you don't need anything more than a passing knowledge of the conflict to keep up.
16) Lost In Translation
It can’t be easy trying to make a name for yourself in film directing when you’re the daughter of an iconic figure in that field. That has been Sofia Coppola’s lot and for the most part I think it’s fair to say it’s a cross she has struggled to bear. The one shining exception to that in her canon for me is Lost In Translation.
Aging actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a household name but increasingly a relic of the past. His career on a sharp decline, he accepts an offer to go to Tokyo for a few weeks to make a series of lucrative advertisements for a brand of whisky. Though grateful for the work and the money, the long hours he has to spend alone in the hotel bar leave him pondering not only his new surroundings but also his life, his career, his marriage – and none of it makes him feel good about himself. One night he meets another lost soul in Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), herself a tourist with nothing to do for hours while her new husband is busy on a photographic assignment. Despite Harris being twice her age, a kinship develops between them that quickly seems destined to develop into something more.
Lost In Translation is a triumph of subtlety – there’s a hell of a lot more going on in the minds of its participants (and hence the viewer) than appears on the screen. It’s as much about what isn’t said as what is said, what isn’t done as what is done. It’s neither exactly an American Independent nor Hollywood film and it certainly feels nothing like the typical output of the latter. Had I been told it was a faithful remake of a French or German film I would have found that entirely believable (that by the way is a compliment in my book). As a rule I wouldn’t be a huge fan of films falling under the ‘romantic comedy’ banner but I do like when that’s done with a unique twist. Which this certainly is.
17) The Wrestler
Some directors seem to spend their whole careers damned with faint praise, others seem to have plaudits thrown at them for everything they touch. I’d have Darren Aronofsky in the latter camp, as ever since the hugely overrated Pi in the late 90’s he’s had the critics eating out of his hand, often with little justification. One film for which I felt the critical acclaim was merited though was The Wrestler.
Mickey Rourke plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a one-time star in the world of professional wrestling for whom the big pay days are a distant memory. He is now reduced to working part-time while putting himself through the indignity and physical punishment of wrestling every weekend for crowds and purses of a few hundred a time, relying on steroid injections to get his aching body through the bouts. His personal life and health are in a similar state but after he befriends a stripper, he resolves to try to rebuild the fractured relationships in his life with the promise of a lucrative rematch with 1980’s rival ‘The Ayatollah’ looming. We follow him on his path along the road towards redemption, as fate and his own demons act as constant barriers to his recovery.
The casting of Rourke in the lead role was an inspired but risky move by Aronofsky. After he had taken time away from the screen to pursue an unlikely pro-boxing career in the early 90’s, Rourke’s own film career had descended into a drugs and alcohol fuelled mess which had seriously affected both his reliability and his ability to act. For the best part of a decade, no director in Hollywood had entrusted him with star billing in a film. Perhaps it was the parallels between his own life’s experiences and those of the part he was playing that drove him here, bit whatever his motivation he delivers a terrific performance here which rightly won him widespread acclaim, including the Golden Globe. Rourke himself has said that the praise he valued most was that received from former pro-Wrestlers, especially ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper who was said to have been emotionally overwhelmed at the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of the industry's dark underbelly.
18 -) Misery
There was a time a few years back when I would have considered this far too obvious to be included here as everybody I knew seemed to have seen it. However a few times recently when justifying my lukewarm attitude towards the horror genre in general, I’ve referenced this film as an example of how it should be done and found to my surprise that a lot of people haven’t seen it.
With a body of work prior to this encompassing the likes of This Is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner might have appeared an odd choice to bring Stephen King’s psychological horror novel to the big screen. However King had been impressed with Reiner’s film adaptation of his novella The Body into Stand By Me and encouraged Columbia to put him behind the lens again here.
James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, an author who has achieved great commercial success with his novels based on a heroine named Misery Chastain. He longs to be taken more seriously in the literary world and while his latest 'Misery' book is awaiting publication, takes off to his regular retreat in the seclusion of the Colorado Rockies to write his first post-Misery novel. With the manuscript complete, he sets off home but gets caught in a snowstorm in which his car crashes off the road. Fortunately he is rescued by homely nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who, with all roads in the area impassable, brings him to her home and treats the two broken legs and dislocated shoulder he sustained in the accident. Proclaiming herself to be his ‘number one fan’, she talks incessantly about his novels and Sheldon agrees to let her read the manuscript of his new book. And that’s where things start taking a turn for the sinister…
As I say, I normally don’t like ‘horror’ films but this is one of the minority done with intelligence and eschews the usual clichés of the genre. There’s no gore, no monsters or supernatural beings, no incongruous episodes shoehorned into the storyline purely for effect. In fact perhaps the most terrifying thing about the story is it credibility and sense of reality – you truly do believe there could be Annie Wilkes’s out there that harbour violently psychotic personalities beneath a normal veneer. Bates, who was generally considered unfit to carry a lead role prior to this, excels in the role - her performance deservedly won her both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Actress. With Sheldon’s role being to some extent that of a foil, the part was passed around Hollywood A-listers like a hot shite before Caan got it - De Niro, Pacino, Redford, Hoffman, Douglas, Hackman, Ford and Hurt were among those that apparently turned it down before Caan accepted.
With scary season upon us, this is one to either check out or enjoy again over the next couple of weeks.
David Fincher burst onto the cinematic scene in the mid-90s with the chilling Seven and ended that decade with another ‘must see’ film of the day in Fight Club. Since then he’s continued to have success, but the likes of The Social Network have lacked the distinctive touch of his earlier output while his decision to direct the US remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a little disappointing for me – he’s better than having to rehash somebody else’s (very recent) work.
Somewhat lost among his noughties films was this complex thriller based on the true story of the hunt for the notorious self-christened ‘Zodiac’, who murdered at least five people and seriously injured two others in a killing spree across the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. The killer sent taunting letters to police via the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper claiming responsibility for the attacks that also included cryptograms apparently based on astrological signs. The murders remain unsolved as the ‘Zodiac’ was never apprehended.
This latter fact makes this murder mystery different to the archetypal standard of the genre, where everything is neatly tied up at the end. Instead this film is more a character study of the immense strain that obsession with a frustrating, fruitless search for an answer has upon those investigating the case, both in law enforcement and those reporting on it. This approach has polarised audience opinion of the film, some find it dragged out and boring, and it performed poorly at the US box office. To me, that’s missing the point of this film entirely. If you want a ‘good guy gets the medal, bad guy gets the chair’ popcorn flick, there are gazillions out there. If this leaves you with a sense of dissatisfaction, it’s supposed to – it’s intended to put us inside the heads of men who were reduced to shadows of their former selves by their inability to bring the case to a successful conclusion. If you find the depiction of the dead-end leads and vanishing hopes of its last hour a challenge, what this film asks of you is to consider what it was like for these men to live with that feeling every day for decades.
With so many films on murders solved and unsolved having been made in the history of cinema, I think it’s a remarkable achievement for anybody to offer a fresh twist on the genre. That uniqueness makes this a must view for me.
20) The Imposter
The publicity this week around the strange case of the mystery woman found outside the GPO reminded me of this gem of a documentary film – one that definitely needs to be in this list (it gets a few mentions on the other film thread). Bizarre as the Azzopardi episode might be, it truly has nothing on this saga.
In 1994, a 13 year old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared near his home near San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, ‘Nicholas Barclay’ turned up alive in Andalucia, apparently deeply traumatised and having grown considerably in the intervening years. We learn pretty soon that the Nicholas Barclay who appeared in southern Spain wasn’t the same person who had disappeared in Texas but in fact a man named Frédéric Bourdin – he was much older (23), had the wrong colour hair, wrong colour eyes and most importantly, was clearly French, not American. Despite this, when Nicholas Barclay’s sister arrived to identify him, she confirmed that this man was her long lost brother. That set in motion a chain of ever more unlikely events that saw Bourdin ‘repatriated’ to Texas and accepted into the Barclay family.
If this film were fictional, I think it would have been panned critically for the sheer implausibility of the plot and the leaps of faith it demanded of its audience. It’s that same stretching of credulity that makes this true story all the more compelling, as it inevitably begs questions regarding the motivation not only of Bourdin in creating this improbable fantasy, but also those who were willing to play along with it.
21) A History Of Violence
Including two David Cronenberg films in the first 20 on this list might give the impression I’m crazy about all his stuff which isn’t the case. But like Eastern Promises earlier, this was a film I just really liked.
Viggo Mortensen (who also stars in Eastern Promises) here plays Tom Stall, a quiet man living a quiet life in a small Indiana town, running a diner with his wife. Late one night a couple of armed fugitives enter the diner intent upon committing a violent robbery. When they start to threaten the lives of staff and customers, the mild-mannered Tom springs into action, disarming one of the men and shooting both of them dead. The incident creates a media frenzy with Tom hailed as an American hero. He seems reluctant to step into the limelight however despite the diner being inundated with new customers. Even less welcome is a shady visitor from out of town named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who arrives with a couple of sidekicks and has apparently mistaken Tom for a former criminal associate , refusing to take Tom’s denials of this for an answer.
As the title suggests, violence comes to dominate this film but perhaps not in the way expected. While there are some very violent scenes in the film, it is essentially a psychological drama. I can’t expand much more beyond that without spoiling the plot, suffice to say I’d be surprised if this film disappoints anybody who likes a crime thriller done a little differently to the norm.
22) This Is England
There are films which attain and retain classic status instantly. There are others that are underrated upon their release but gain critical respect over the ensuing years. And then there are those which are initially hailed as masterpieces but whose aura fades because of subsequent events. I fear Shane Meadows' This Is England is in danger of falling into this latter category, as I felt the spin-off TV Series it spawned fell victim to the law of diminishing returns to the point where it has sullied the reputation of the whole ‘franchise’, original film included. You can have too much of a good thing.
The film is set in an unspecified (Northern/Midlands) English town in 1983. Shaun is a 12 year old kid struggling to cope with the loss of his father in the Falklands War the previous year. He falls in with a group of older skinheads after their leader, Woody, takes pity on him. To the uninitiated, skinheads were paradoxically closely associated in the public consciousness with both the far-right National Front and Jamaican Ska music (which is obviously of black origin). It’s clear this group have much more interest in the latter than the former, at least until the return from prison of Combo, a sociable but sociopathic character who immediately comes to dominate the group and tries to reshape it along his ultra-Nationalist lines.
This Is England is a grim but realistic portrayal of the frustration, despair, hopelessness and powerlessness felt by many who found themselves young, idle and abandoned in Thatcher’s Britain. Soundtracks are often plastered into a film for no other reason than to give them some sense of cool, here the meticulously chosen music plays a critical role in setting the film’s tone and cementing the sense of time and place – this could only have been a declining working class community in early 80’s England. Sociological commentary has rarely been so entertaining and this stands as a dark but rewarding memoir of turbulent times.
23) Jagten (The Hunt) (Denmark)
The festive season has traditionally been an excuse for all manner of schmaltzy drivel to hit our screens, usually being spared the critical panning such dross deserves for fear of the critic being labelled a Grinch. Because for every It’s A Wonderful Life or even Trading Places, there has been a hundred cynical half-arsed cash-ins with paper-thin plots and the obligatory mawkish finale. If you have to suffer them for the sake of the kids, fair enough, but they aren’t making this feckin list. Instead, my Yuletide offering is something decent that happens to have part of its story set around Christmas. While it’s about kids, it most definitely isn’t for them. And there’s snow in it - that’ll have to do those of you looking for something traditional.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, who works in a kindergarten in a small rural Danish village. Despite his divorce complicating his efforts to build a meaningful relationship with his son, in general his life is pretty content, immersed as he is in the local community and its main interests of hunting and drinking. And even his love life seems to be looking up, when he starts dating Nadja, a pretty immigrant co-worker. All of this changes upon one out of place remark made by Klara, the young daughter of his best friend, who attends the kindergarten. This sets in motion an inquiry that soon leads to a hysterical witch hunt which overwhelms trust, friendships, the truth and any sense of rationality within the community. What follows makes for a tough but compelling watch with superb performances from both Mikkelsen and 5 year old Annika Wedderkopp as Klara.
This film was made last year and premiered at the Cannes Festival in May. It didn’t receive a full cinema release until January of this year though so is eligible for next year’s awards and indeed has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
24) Best In Show
Christopher Guest is probably best known for playing the part of dim witted guitarist Nigel Tufnel in the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, in particular the ‘these go up to 11’ amplifier scene. Guest was one of the main writers of Tap and has continued to write, direct and act in films of a similar semi-improvised comic vein.
Best In Show is Guest’s satirical swipe at the world of pedigree dog owners and trainers. You may only have been vaguely aware that such a world even existed but this film follows the lives of five dogs and their owners who take this thing seriously. Very seriously. In fact so seriously they seem oblivious to the fact that their devotion to their dogs and obsession with winning the eponymous annual show strips bare their most unpleasant and embarrassing personality traits to the wider world. Though for me it’s Fred Willard’s turn as the hapless ‘colour commentator’ Buck Laughlin that steals the show as he attempts to inject his ‘common man’ angle to proceedings.
This type of humour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However if the likes of The Office rocked your boat, then you’ll probably appreciate the output of a man who Gervais has acknowledged as having had a huge influence on the humour employed in that series and Best In Show is as good an introduction as any.
25) Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives Of Others) Germany
I said when I included Goodbye, Lenin! in this list that there’d be another film set in East Berlin in the 1980’s in it, as there was no way I was ever omitting this. This may be thought of as the darker companion of that film.
It’s 1984 in East Berlin and still a couple of years before Gorbachev’s Glasnost policies would initiate a thaw in the Cold War. Nowhere is the paranoia of the Eastern Bloc more prevalent than in the German Democratic Republic, where every citizen is considered a potential spy, collaborator or dissident. The dreaded Stasi are the eyes and ears of the State – their goal, as the opening titles tell us, is to know everything about ‘the lives of others’. Those involved in the Arts find themselves the subjects of particularly close scrutiny and this story centres around the plight of two prominent members of East Berlin’s stage scene; successful playwright Georg Dreyman and his theatre actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. Although to all outward appearances Dreyman is loyal to the regime, one of the Stasi’s most proficient agents, Hauptmann Gerd Weisler, is assigned to spy on him. It soon becomes clear to Weisler that one of his superiors has an ulterior motive in wanting to incriminate Dreyman in anti-State activity. This realisation forces him to constantly reassess where his loyalties lie through the long hours of surveillance.
If you’re thinking that this is a spy film in the classic mould, think again. This is a car chase-free zone. As with many of the best films labelled with the ‘Political Thriller’ moniker, its greatest success lies in the sense of realism and empathy it achieves in portraying the effects of politics on the lives of ordinary people.
Incidentally the film mirrored actual events in the life of Ulrich Mühe, who plays Weisler here and sadly died from stomach cancer the year after the film’s release. To elaborate on this would be plot-spoiling but after you’ve seen the film it’s worth reading if only to emphasise that while the plot is fictional, the sense of fear and betrayal it engenders very much reflects the reality of life in the GDR.
Some have called this the greatest film made so far this century. That’s a lofty claim but it’s certainly a strong contender for that title in my book and absolutely essential viewing for anybody that hasn’t seen it. I’ve watched it at least half a dozen times and taken something new away from it each time, something I could say about very few films ever made.