Friday, October 19, 2007

My ten favorite films

We took some good friends of ours out to dinner to celebrate a birthday the other night. Over champagne one of our friends asked us to name our ten favorite films. Not the ten films we'd consider the best or the most significant, but the films that we find most pleasurable--the ones that we find ourselves watching happily for the fifth or tenth or thirtieth time, the ones that we never miss when they're shown on TV. I didn't come up with a very adequate answer at the restaurant (thanks, no doubt, to the champagne), but now I've managed to give the question a bit more thought.

The "pleasure" criterion means that greatness is neither sufficient nor even necessary for a film to make the cut. Among the filmmakers who didn't make my list are Almodovar, Bergman, Buñuel, Chaplin (and Keaton and Lloyd), Cocteau, De Sica, Fellini, Godard, Kieslowski, Kurosawa, the Marx Brothers, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Renoir, Rossellini, Scorsese, Truffaut, Welles, or Wilder. The only claim I'm making for the movies that did make the list is that I've formed an intense and continuing personal connection with them.

Entire genres are missing, too: there are no silent films, horror films, or action films. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the list could easily have been Hitchcock movies, or films noir. So I decided that for some entries, one film would have to represent many others. Of course on another day I might decide that my favorite noir is The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. As a consequence this list should be thought of as a continual work in progress.

So here are some of my favorite films, in the order in which they occurred to me:

1. Vertigo. No surprise to anyone who knows me (or who has read the first installment of this blog), Vertigo not only occupies the top spot for itself; it stands in for many of Hitchcock's other films as well: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Blackmail, The 39 Steps, Young & Innocent, Sabotage, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, The Birds, Dial M for Murder...

2. Singin' In The Rain. In my view the most purely enjoyable Hollywood musical save one, and which just beats out An American in Paris, the Astaire/Rogers films, On The Town, West Side Story, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Which is a bit of a surprise, because Singin' in the Rain's music (by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown) is far weaker than the scores for the other films, supplied by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, and Bernstein. But the story by Betty Comden and Adolph Green about Hollywood's rocky transition from silents to sound is just brilliant, and provides the perfect period context for Freed and Brown's songs.

3. The Wizard of Oz. The best Hollywood musical that isn't Singin' In The Rain, and one of the most frightening films ever made (at least, so claims my 6-year-old self). The flying monkeys still give me nightmares. (Incidentally, I'd seen the film perhaps ten times on black and white TV before I saw it in a theater and discovered that the Oz scenes were in Technicolor--and yet even in black and white it was so wonderful and terrifying to my youthful imagination I'm not sure I could have borne it in color.) Those veteran vaudevillians Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr deliver their schtick as though for the first time. And when 16-year-old Judy Garland steps forward to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" I hold my breath, even though I've heard it countless times before.

4. The Big Sleep. Bogart and Bacall in a film whose plot is nearly incoherent--but who cares? Their chemistry carries the film (as it does To Have and Have Not, also directed by Howard Hawks). This title has to represent many other films noir: The Maltese Falcon, Lady from Shanghai, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Sunset Blvd, The Big Heat, Gilda, Laura, The Big Clock, Gun Crazy, Detour, Narrow Margin, and on and on. If you're a fan, I highly recommend Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference edited by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward and James Ursini, and Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, by Eddie Muller.

5. Casablanca. Perhaps it's an obvious choice, but the crackling, endlessly quotable script, Bogart in his archetypal role, a cast filled with European refugees played by actual European refugees, and Ingrid Bergman's luminous beauty make it impossible for me to leave it off my list.

6. La Jetée. I'm cheating a bit here because this isn't a feature-length film. But it's haunting and unforgettable, and should be experienced in a theater if at all possible. In this film composed of stills the moment when the man's sleeping lover opens her eyes is one of the most moving in cinema.

7. Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick's renowned chilliness as a director gives this movie a deadpan tone that makes it both hilarious and horrifying. Peter Sellars is so brilliant in multiple roles that the first time I saw it I thought he was three separate actors, and George C. Scott's gum-chewing, explosively exasperated General Buck Turgidson is Sellars' perfect foil.

8. It's a Wonderful Life. Not nearly as saccharine as you probably think it is, this is actually a very dark story about how George Bailey's dreams of escape from his constricted small-town existence are continually thwarted. Plus, if George hadn't existed Donna Reed would have become--a librarian! What could be more horrible? I have a fantasy that one day I'm going to re-edit this movie, cut God out of it entirely, and reveal it as the true noir masterpiece it is.

9. The Philadelphia Story. The Hollywood studio system functioning at its highest level, with a cast of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. This film stands in for many other great pre-WWII comedies (most of which, come to think of it, also star Cary Grant): His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, It Happened One Night, My Favorite Wife, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday...

10. Kal Ho Naa Ho. An atypical Bollywood film set among young Desis in New York, KHNH makes this list on the appeal of its stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, and Preity Zinta), the cleverness of its script, and the way its musical numbers are integrated into the story. Once again a single film represents many others: Modern-day Bollywood classics such as Devdas, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Veer-Zaara, Paheli, Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kandukondain Kandukondain, the original Umrao Jaan, Khal Nayak--most of which, come to think of it, also star Shah Rukh Khan.

Honorable mentions to Some Like It Hot (Marilyn Monroe at her most comically luscious), Cocteau's La Belle et La Bête (the utterly magical images of the Beast's castle), and Ugetsu Monogatari, which were on earlier versions of this list but somehow didn't make the final 10.

While the movies on the list are pretty evenly distributed from the 1930s through the 1960s, there are none from the 1970s (sorry, Godfather), 1980s (sorry, Wings of Desire and Dekalog), or 1990s (sorry, Groundhog Day), and only one from the 2000s (sorry, Amélie). And with the exceptions of La Jetée and Kal Ho Naa Ho, I had seen all of the films on the list by the time I was 25. Are movies getting worse, or am I getting less susceptible?

All comments, flames, and alternative lists welcome.


  1. I luuuurve Philadelphia Story. Most anything with Cary Grant, actually, and Katherine Hepburn is by far my favorite of his pairings (and he hers). I'll have to ponder this and get back to you with my own list - I haven't give it any thought for awhile, and certainly not with your criteria, of which I heartily approve.

  2. I'm a huge fan of both Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, together and separately. Together, Holiday, Bringing Up Baby and Sylvia Scarlett are especially brilliant. For him without her, I recommend The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, Notorious and North By Northwest. For her without him, Stage Door (what a cast!), The African Queen and The Lion In Winter.

    The current generation of Hollywood stars is sadly deficient in comparison to that of the studio era. The only place it's possible encounter true movie stars anymore is Bollywood.

  3. Oh yes, as am I. Great list - I've seen at least half of those but am building up my holiday watching plan and will try to track down Sylvia Scarlett.

    Off the top of my head I'm not sure I agree with you about the state of movie stars, but it's an interesting idea.

  4. Before I abandoned Hollywood almost entirely for Bollywood, I used to watch old (40's-60's) films after school religiously. I always loved Hitchcock (and one of my favorite Hindi film directors is Vijay Anand, who made many a "homage" to Hitchcock himself, most notably with Teesri Manzil)...I was a sucker for schmaltz too, like "An Affair To Remember" (the Hindi version is spectactularly even more over the top ;-). Great list!

  5. The Wizard of Oz is the shared film on my and Pessimisissimo’s lists, although far from the only repeated pleasure. Without ado, but with much with more to do (blogging is such a terrific distraction from the mundane workaday world of necessity), my nearly-all-noir ten:

    1. The Wizard of Oz (1939): natch & match.

    2. The Late Show (1977): Art Carney and Lily Tomlin make the most unlikely romantic detective duo in Robert Benton’s deadpan debut homage to LA noir.

    3. The Third Man (1949): Joseph Cotton is the hapless Holly Martins, Orson Welles the Mephistophelean Harry Lime, Alida Vali the imperviously svelte Anna in Carol Reed’s noir adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel.

    4. Strangers on a Train (1951): I love Patricia Highsmith’s novel, but this Hitchock film is clearly my favorite, perhaps the most visceral and uncanny one that he ever made.

    5. The Thin Man (1934): William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in a series of “Thin Man” movies based upon the Dashiell Hammett novel, as the martini drinking and quick witted married detective duo Nick and Nora Charles. This first is the best.

    6. Bob le Flambeur (1955): Some say Jean-Pierre Melville created the nouvelle vague with this French tribute to American film noir; it certainly equals, if not exceeds, anything the Hollywood studio system ever made. You gotta love Bob’s insouciance as his heist gang gets shot up, while he is on a winning card streak in Monte Carlo.

    7. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974): Director Martin Scorsese drops his violent and cynical sensibilities to make a great and deeply decent romance movie. Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson star as the all too human Alice and David. Check out the homage to The Wizard of Oz.

    8. Young Frankenstein (1974): Mel Brooks's shtick doesn’t do much for me, but Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle team up in performances that elicit tears of laughter from me every time I see this one. (Runner up: Bedazzled, 1967, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.)

    9. Dark City (1998): You know, sometimes I like a good sci-fi movie, and this may well be my favorite. Australian director Alex Proyas wrote the script, which rivals anything Philip K. Dick ever did (or was adapted to the screen). Very noir, satisfying sci-fi.

    10. Scotland, PA (2002):
    Actor Billy Morrissette’s screenplay and directorial debut reminds us why Shakespeare was once popular instead of canonized. Adapted from the bard’s Macbeth, Joe “Mac” McBeth (James LeGros) and his wife Pat (Maura Tierney) knock off cafe owner Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn) and start their own fast food restaurant. They are hounded by the vegetarian detective Ernie McDuff (Christopher Walken). The stoned witches are pretty fun, too.

  6. My comment about Hollywood lacking stars may require its own post, but here's the short version. For me, a star is someone whose every movie you want to see, or are at least strongly curious about.

    But for current Hollywood actors, no one among the men (not George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, etc) or women (not Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johannson, etc) fits that description for me.

    But Shahrukh Khan does. And to a lesser extent, so do Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan. Among the women, the presence of Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai/Bachchan or Madhuri Dixit will make me want to see a movie, knowing virtually nothing else about it.

  7. M. Lapin's list is an intriguing one. Knowing his interests as I do, I'm surprised that more French films don't appear, though the one that does (Bob le Flambeur) I endorse whole-heartedly.

    I have to confess that I haven't seen Alice Doesn't..., Dark City or Scotland, PA. Three more for the Netflix queue...

  8. I love your list - it's strikingly individual and I love how you've pinpointed the personal appeal each film has for you. If I had such a list, 'It's a Wonderful Life' would definitely be on it. I agree with you that it's not the cheese-fest it's often described as. I'm torn about 'The Wizard of Oz' - while Judy Garland's performance is heavenly, those flying monkeys terrified me SO much as a child (I thought I was the only one - thanks for letting me know I'm not alone) that permanent scars remain. Today, the thought of watching this movie fills me with equal parts of delight and spooked-ness. And I'm a bit of a wuss - I rarely sign up for terror. But
    'Over the Rainbow' is indeed divine.
    On my list, I would also have to have at least one Bette Davis movie, because watching her is always tremendously delightful and delicious for me - probably 'All About Eve', because I consider its script and casting to be pure undiluted genius. 'Gigi' would also be on my list - it's one of my favourite musicals - I think it's pure magic and I love its mix of picture-book romance and frank realism. Another movie on my list would be the oft-derided 'Rocky' - for some reason I am addicted to the character of Rocky Balboa.
    So that's about half of my top ten - the other five are floating around somewhere in my head, someday I'll figure out what they are.

  9. Daddy's Girl, thanks for your kind words! My worry with my list was that (perhaps La Jetee and Kal Ho Naa Ho aside) it was too predictable--I'm glad to find that it isn't so.

    Yes, I agree that the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz were (and still are) terrifying. So is the tornado scene, when Dorothy is shut out of her family's storm cellar (isn't that every child's nightmare, to be abandoned by their family?), the talking trees, the scene where Auntie Em's image in the crystal ball is replaced by the cackling visage of the Wicked Witch...I could go on and on (and apart from "Rainbow" I haven't even mentioned Arlen and Harburg's brilliant songs). But yes, it's really too scary for young children--true also of its much later sequel, Return to Oz, in which Dorothy is given electroshock treatments (!).

    Bette Davis probably should have been included on my list, and All About Eve is another great classic with an endlessly quotable script. And for someone who loved Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, it's odd that I have to confess that I've never seen Gigi. Nor have I seen Rocky, although you're actually not the first person to recommend it to me. Could there be a good Sylvester Stallone movie...?

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

  10. Hi. I like your list and personally loves somo of those films. But of course it represents movies from a anglonorth american point of view.I would include, from my position as peruvian some a Visconti and Fellini films (La Strada and Las Nottes di Cabiria), as well as a Sara Montiel film (La Violetera) or even Violetas Imperiales with Carmen Sevilla and Luis Mariano. Please discover Luis Mariano.It is worth it.

    How I discovered this blog? Well, by your including T La Fedelta Premiata by Haydn. We just a have a local presentation of that opera here in Lima and I loved it.

    Serendipity it is

    From Lima


    PD: And I love the Gigi film. ...

    PD: I have a lot of Bollywood to discover myself. ...

  11. Gustavo, many thanks for discovering my blog, and for your comment. Regarding my favorite films, yes, they definitely have an Anglo—read, Hollywood— bias. But as I mention in the post, this is not a list of the best or most significant films. These are films with which I have formed an enduring personal connection, generally before I was 25. And while I think, for example, that Ozu's Tokyo Story is a towering classic of world cinema that is among the greatest films ever made, I don't feel compelled to watch it over and over as I do the movies on this list. In this way I'm a prisoner of the circumstances of my upbringing. But I definitely will seek out Luis Mariano—many thanks for the recommendation.

    And I'm so glad that you were able to see Haydn's La Fedeltà Premiata. Lima's taste and adventurousness in opera is far in advance of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.