My Favorite Flicks
Earlier this year the American Film Institute made headlines with a list of the 100 best American films. We asked regular reviewers Roy Anker and Peter Chattaway to give us a modest counterpart: their 10 favorite films. Herewith their lists:
Favorite doesn't necessarily mean best (though most here are), for these choices depend as much on personal history as cinematic merit. Kafka wrote that art is the "ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us," and so all these, showing both dark and bright, shook this soul.
- The Godfather Saga (dir. Francis Coppola, 1972-90). This wrenching fugue on moral decay has the "blackness of darkness" (Melville on Hawthorne, with whom Coppola belongs). At once inescapable and self-chosen, an appalling evil devours mob son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). By part 3, aging and soul sick, Michael reaches for Christian redemption but chooses ill yet again, arriving at a final unfathomable devastation.
- Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). Again gorgeous, grim stuff, a blanched noir tale of a jaded streetwise PI (Jack Nicholson) who runs into moral horror beyond imagining, and that in the best of places. And surprise! cruelest malice wears a smiling face.
- Superman (Richard Donner, 1978). Well, why not, at least the first half: superhero as seriocomic Christ (Christopher Reeve) tells more about the glad core of the Incarnation than whole theologies. Indeed, the film tutors the heart, especially with the help of John Williams's exultant score.
- Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980). With painterly precision, Redford explores the "mess" tragedy brings to a well-to-do Chicago family. The wonder is that any recover enough to find relish in living, which is also grace. The movie made Pachelbel famous for the good reason that in context the Canon in D wonderfully suggests the exquisite splendor of being alive.
- American Gigolo (Paul Schrader, 1980). A stark Calvinist parable about the nature of evil and the persistence of grace, even for upscale gigolos (Richard Gere). Best of all is the film's moving portrait of the central human yearning for intimacy and "home."
- Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983). Writer Horton Foote's story of a derelict country singer (Robert Duvall) whose self-destruction is redeemed by the "tender mercies" of a West Texas Baptist widow (Tess Harper). Through people and places, grace comes to the inscrutable emptiness of the Texas plains.
- The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986). Eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Central America. The first half of Robert Bolt's screenplay depicts the conversion (unexpected and wild, it is the best ever put on screen) of a slave-trading murderer (Robert De Niro), and the second unflichingly explores the fate of Christ amid the demonic tangles of geopolitics. Joffe's rapturous direction is complemented by stunning cinematography (Chris Menges) and one of the best film scores ever (Ennio Morricone).
- Babette's Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987). Long ago in a tiny Danish fishing village, two maiden daughters of a pietist preacher take in a homeless French cook who years later repays their kindness with a sumptuous French dinner. That becomes the Love Feast, precisely because of its splendidly loving carnality. Wondrous-strange Light here transmutes the lasting sadness of darkness and loss.
- Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan, 1991). Amid the horrors of contemporary L.A., a motley bunch of unsuspecting pilgrims stumble upon signs of a Providence that shoves their lives toward one another, meaning, and joy. Kasdan's inventive cinema makes all these tales plausible and conveys well the "feel" of What visits these disparate folks.
- Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993). In this virtually silent film, a young French woman (Juliette Binoche) seeks numbness after a car wreck kills her daughter and composer husband. Slowly but inexorably, the haunting coda of an unfinished symphony, which sounds Love itself, carries her back into living and loving.
Consider as well Places in the Heart, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Dead Man Walking, The Doctor, The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and, yes, Citizen Kane.
Peter T. Chattaway
They asked for "favorite" films, not the "best" movies ever produced, so I will not pretend that this list is definitive for anyone other than myself. And even then—well, let's just say the top five or so are pretty much set in stone, but the rest remain more tentative.
- Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962). A grand, visual spectacle backed by Maurice Jarre's majestic music and supported by perhaps the greatest international cast ever assembled, yes, but also a thoughtful, incisive look at the tensions that exist between nationality and personality, power and identity, destiny and free will.
- The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985). A "minor character" steps off a movie screen and into Depression-era New Jersey, stranding his fellow characters while offering perfect, but imaginary, love to an abused housewife. A delightfully comic exploration of the difference between movie fantasy and harsh reality, but also a remarkably canny parable about a created world that is deemed good yet loses its sense of purpose once its inhabitants "chuck out the plot."
- The Family Way (Roy Boulting, 1966). A poignant, funny, bittersweet look at newlywed woes in working-class England that touches gently on a few hot buttons, notably impotence. John Mills delivers a superb, many-layered performance as real-life daughter Hayley's father-in-law, and Paul McCartney—in the first solo Beatle project—provides the tender, melancholy, and hauntingly perfect score.
- Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983). No script, no actors, no plot—just pure cinema, set to Philip Glass's mesmerizing music. The title is Hopi for "life out of balance," and Reggio employs a grab bag of camera tricks to convey the idea that modern technology—including moviemaking!—has thrown the created order out of whack. A dazzling film that seems to recreate itself with every viewing.
- The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980). Not your typical sequel. George Lucas took a lot of risks with the middle chapter in his space opera and created a more successfully convincing parallel universe than Star Wars ever hinted at. The confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is striking for its moral complexity, and it ultimately opens the door to Vader's redemption. Who could have predicted that?
- When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989). Forget Seinfeld. Reiner, Nora Ephron, Billy Crystal, and Meg Ryan scooped that so-so series with this surprisingly perceptive and frequently amusing dissection of modern relationships—platonic and otherwise—between the sexes. A treat for cynics and romantics alike.
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, 1938). Swordfights, romance, swashbuckling derring-do, and a subversively patriotic idealism—what more could one want? Still the best film of its kind, even if Basil Rathbone is less menacing here than he is in The Court Jester (Melvin Frank & Norman Panama, 1956), Danny Kaye's witty, affectionate send-up of the genre.
- Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979). Not as irreverent as some might think, this intelligent, albeit raunchy, satire of big-budget Bible epics is, if anything, sympathetic toward Jesus. It taps into a subversive critique of shallow faith, personal ingratitude, and misplaced political zeal that is as old as the Gospels themselves.
- The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988). Morris's dreamlike documentary is much more than a stylish, neonoir, real-life account of an innocent man convicted and almost executed for a murder he did not commit. It's a remarkable piece of investigative journalism and a probing study of the construction—and deconstruction—of memory.
- Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989). A sometimes gentle, sometimes biting, allegorical tour-de-force about the postmodern quest for meaning and the tensions between integrity and compromise that plague both art and religion. Tight, complex, and richly conceived, every scene seems to be pregnant with multiple meanings.
Honorable mention goes to the animated shorts of Chuck Jones, especially Rabbit Seasoning (1952), One Froggy Evening (1955), and What's Opera, Doc? (1957). Jones is a master of restraint; his characters can speak volumes with little more than an arched eyebrow or a blank stare. Would that writers could do the same.
Roy Anker and Peter T. Chattaway spend much of their time in darkened theaters, emerging every once in a while to experience what others call real life.
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