With top 10 lists from my colleagues here at The Awards Circuit coming at you thick and fast over the past week, the challenge now falls to me to pick out those few masterpieces that I rank above all others. I debated for some time over the whole ‘favourite vs. greatest’ issue, and ultimately realised that I’m unable to set biases aside, these are all films that I love on a very personal level. This said I would happily argue that every film here deserves a place on any list of cinematic greats. I’ve also tried to create a broad and balanced list, incorporating films from eight different decades and numerous genres, that really reflects my own varied taste in cinema, although there are undoubtedly overriding themes that link many of these films. I’m sure at least a couple of my choices will raise some eyebrows, but as the newest of the new guys around here, I hope that this list will at least give you a better idea of who I am as a hopeless film addict.
10. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) d. Robert Aldrich
As warring sisters, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford burn through the screen in this twisted tale of a former child star and her crippled actress sister. Filmed in black and white to keep costs to a minimum, and made at a time when both actresses were worryingly beyond their prime, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a fantastically warped film that helped popularise the ‘Psycho-Biddy’ horror subgenre, and put its two leading ladies back on the map after years in the Hollywood wilderness.
The film earned itself five Oscar nominations, including a spot in the Best Actress line-up for Davis. Her performance ranks amongst her finest. Overblown it may be, but those trademark BD climaxes rarely worked better than for unhinged Baby Jane. It’s magnificent stuff, as she prompts unexpected sympathy for one of the finest on-screen bitches ever seen. Naturally Crawford was devastated to be upstaged by her bitter rival, leading to the argument that Baby Jane suffers because many of the most interesting events happened behind the scenes. In truth this only enhances the viewing pleasure. Davis and Crawford’s feuding was, and still is, legendary. Those melodramatic moments are even more intense when you realise that there is real hatred between these two women. In one scene Davis struck Crawford so hard in the head that the wound required stitches. Following this Crawford stuffed her pockets with weights and insisted numerous retakes during a scene where Davis had to drag her across the floor, causing the 54-year-old great physical strain.
It all marks some of the most inspired casting of all time, and Jack Warner reaped the benefits as the film proved to be a surprise hit. Clearly this was in part for the novelty of seeing Davis serve Crawford a dead rat on a platter, but also because Baby Jane is an exemplary exercise in kitsch horror, overacting, and how to harness Hollywood myth into unforgettable screen action.
9. The Kid (1921) d. Charles Chaplin
Chaplin’s first full-length movie (although still only 68 minutes long) finds the perfect blend of humour and drama to form what remains one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve ever known. The Kid follows Chaplin’s notorious Tramp character, as he reluctantly adopts an abandoned child, and they create magic together in this charming, funny and incredibly warm tale. Chaplin’s pairing with the young Jackie Coogan is superb; I struggle to think of a more joyous adult-child double act in a movie. This great chemistry only adds to the effect of that incredible scene where the two are parted, and Coogan’s desperate reaction sends shivers down the spine in its effectiveness and honesty.
The film’s title card reads “A comedy with a smile and perhaps a tear” and it couldn’t be more accurate, The Kid is less of an all-out slapstick assault than Chaplin’s later works, but presents a great streak of sentimentalism that perhaps best embodies the personal turmoil Chaplin experienced in his own life. It’s hard to find any great weakness in The Kid; despite its diminutive nature, it gets under the skin and pulls you along from start to finish. The ultimate sign of quality is that this film has endured for more than 90 years, and still plays brilliantly to a modern audience.
8. The Devils (1971) d. Ken Russell
Controversy has played a big part in defining many of Hollywood’s most beloved movies. During the 1970s there were a number of deliberately violent and sexual smash hits that have today become cult classics; I’m talking The Exorcist, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and my number 8 movie, Ken Russell’s erotically charged masterpiece The Devils. It stars Vanessa Redgrave as a sexually repressed nun who incessantly fantasizes about Oliver Reed’s handsome priest, before framing him for witchcraft and herself being accused of demon possession. Redgrave’s fanatical, hunchback nun marks one of my favourite characters of all time; from that exquisitely framed introduction to her final descent into to wailing insanity. However all of the leading players deliver fantastic performances.
Detractors have labelled The Devils gratuitous and intentionally offensive, and while this might be true, Russell actually has plenty to say about the often-corrupt nature of religious establishment, the marriage of Church and State, and the treatment of women in a patriarchal world. British film critic Mark Kermode has spent a great deal of time recommending film fans watch The Devils, and finally succeeded in getting a full DVD release in March 2012, something Warner Brothers have been notably unwilling to do for many years. Despite this, the so-called ‘Rape of Christ’ scene, which disappeared during censorship in the early 70s, but was found by Kermode many years later, has still not made it to DVD. As you can imagine, The Devils is not a film for everyone, but I recommend everyone should watch it once. Aside from anything else this is a feast for fans of spectacularly executed, over the top theatrics.
7. Inception (2010) d. Christopher Nolan
The most recent film on my list is, in my opinion, the ultimate blockbuster. Inception left me suitably blown away when I first watched it, and has only gotten better every time since. While I don’t consider myself a Nolan-fanboy as such, I am certainly a big fan of this brilliantly talented director, who strives to bring intellect and intense quality to big-budget action thrillers, at a time when hacks and studios seem intent on doing precisely the opposite.
Much has been debated about Inception over the past couple of years, but for all its supposed plot holes and contested borrowings, I remain firm in my opinion that this is a masterwork of suspense and complex storytelling. Surprisingly one of my favourite aspects is the love story between DiCaprio and Cotillard, which I find far more engaging than the majority of phoney Hollywood romances we are faced with each year. From the fantastic cast (Hardy, Levitt, Caine et. al) to the incredible visuals, challenging screenplay, Zimmer’s fantastic score, and the top class execution of pretty much all aspects, Inception is a dazzling movie.
6. Rebecca (1940) d. Alfred Hitchcock
After much consideration I have come to the conclusion that everyone should have at least one Hitchcock flick somewhere in their top 10. Though I pondered Psycho, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, for me Hitchcock’s most worthy film is the Academy’s 1941 Best Picture winner, Rebecca. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel about a nameless heroine who is forever stuck in the shadow of her husband’s dead ex-wife, the gothic setting of Manderley is a perfect playground for Hitch’s first outing with the Hollywood studios. He perfectly marries slick cinematography with a handsome cast, some heavyweight drama and white knuckle chills. Of course it’s also overflowing with suspense and has exceptional narrative flow.
Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine lead the cast, however the real stand out is actress Judith Anderson playing evil housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Her character, whom she portrays with a disturbing placid quality, is so pivotal in keeping the ghost of Rebecca alive. The scene in which she tries to coerce Fontaine’s Mrs. De Winter into suicide is particularly spectacular. This is a must-see movie for any Hitchcock fan, or indeed any lover of superbly crafted drama.
5. The Sound of Music (1965) d. Robert Wise
If I haven’t lost you already then I feel like this might be where some of you jump ship and go read Mark or John’s lists again, but few films hold a more important place in my heart than The Sound of Music. One of my earliest childhood memories involves repeat viewings of a scratchy VHS copy of this movie (probably recorded off the TV), and knowing every word. Whenever I visited my grandparents I insisted they played the soundtrack repeatedly, although ironically it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I realised the story continues after Maria and Capt. Von Trapp marry. Clearly as I child I’d always had enough by this point and switched it off.
However the fact remains that this is undoubtedly the film I’ve seen more than any other, and I still try to watch it at least once a year. Why, you may ask? Because while it may not have the spectacle of the classic MGM musicals or the bite and credibility of something like Cabaret, the themes of love, family and the struggle to find purpose in one’s life are so universal that the film becomes impossible to resist, especially when you factor in Rogers and Hammerstein’s wonderful songs and Julie Andrews being just about the loveliest anyone has ever been on the big screen. It might be twee in the extreme, but it was with The Sound of Music that I began my love affair with film.
4. Spirited Away (2001) d. Hayao Miyazaki
A triumph of imagination, animation and storytelling, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is one of the finest animated features ever made. It pains me not to include a classic Disney movie here, especially as I grew up on the supreme trifecta of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, but Spirited Away trumps them all. Even Pixar’s monster hits just don’t compare to this engrossing fantasy about a magical bathhouse for spirits.
First off the animation is stunning. Hand-drawn will always beat stop-motion or digital animation for me; there is so much life and vibrancy in the artwork here. Couple this with Miyazaki’s pitch perfect escapist storytelling and Spirited Away becomes unmissable cinema. Trust me, this isn’t your average episode of Pokemon! Furthermore, as is commonplace for Studio Ghibli features, extra weight is given to the film via its themes. Whereas the equally celebrated Princess Mononoke pushed hard with a cautionary tale of environmental issues, Spirited Away is broader but no less effective. It teaches viewers to be steadfast and persistent in achieving their goals, to show gratitude and avoid greed. It seems unlikely that such important messages would find themselves so beautifully presented in a film like this, but their inclusion is effortless and never preachy.
3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) d. Blake Edwards
Is there a more visually iconic film role than Audrey Hepburn as New York call girl Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s? Hepburn in that black gown, gloves, sunglasses and pearls, hangs from the bedroom walls of millions around the world, and with good reason.
If there was ever a film that could counteract a case of the blues or the mean reds then it’s this. Based on Truman Capote’s novella, director Blake Edwards married style with just enough substance to make Breakfast at Tiffany’s a romantic classic. Over the years it’s become embedded in pop culture history, and rightly so. The story of Golightly’s budding relationship with her handsome new neighbour (George Peppard) may be slight, but that’s not where the movie’s strengths lie. This is a film celebrated for its humourous take on New York’s 1960s social crowd, for delivering snapshots of iconic brilliance and for flirting with romantic cliché but still pulling off a refreshingly clean central relationship that will touch the heart of any self-confessed romantic.
Although Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of ‘Oriental’ neighbour Mr. Yunioshi looks very creaky these days, it’s a small complaint in a sea of positives. Capote may have argued for Marilyn Monroe, but Hepburn is the perfect Golightly; endlessly enigmatic, the ideal fashionista, and eternally charming. Her understated rendition of ‘Moon River’ is a stunning moment. If you have avoided watching this film because you believe it’s just another chick-flick, or because you think it can only be enjoyed by women, then please do yourself a favour and rent a copy/borrow it off your girlfriend. It’s brilliant.
2. All About My Mother (1999) d. Pedro Almodóvar
The greatest film from my favourite director. All About My Mother is a chaotic masterpiece, dedicated to women everywhere. Almodovar presents the best of his unique style, giving us colourful characters, soap opera high jinx, old-school Hollywood references and a supreme celebration of difference. It’s a fantastic introduction into the work of one of cinema’s finest living auteurs. Fronted by Cecilia Roth as a mother in mourning, she travels to Barcelona to find her transsexual best friend, a pregnant nun and a stage actress, with whom she strikes up an unlikely friendship.
It heavily references A Streetcar Named Desire (which narrowly missed this list) and All About Eve (which definitely did not), and is Almodovar’s tribute to great actresses and strong women the world over. The performances are all noteworthy. From Antonia San Juan’s hilarious and rather fearless turn as prostitute La Agrado, to a playful Penelope Cruz representing the epitome of broken innocence, to my favourite of all Almodovar’s muses, Marisa Paredes playing an aging stage actress Huma, with a definite wink to a certain Margo Channing. However the heart of the film lies with Roth, who is frankly Oscar-worthy in her portrayal of Manuela, a mother who loses the most important thing in her life, and must find a way to fill the immense void that has been left behind.
It’s powerful, sexy fun, that uplifts and pulls you along in its open arms; all the audience has to do is embrace it back, and the rewards are endless.
1. All About Eve (1950) d. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Forming a rather perfect double bill with my number 2 movie, All About Eve represents everything I love about cinema. Exquisitely written, brilliantly directed, and heroically performed, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
Bette Davis, in her greatest role, plays Margo Channing, a straight talking stage actress who is beginning to pass her peak. Then enters Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a great fan of Channing, whose naïve doting lands her a spot as the star’s personal assistant. However it doesn’t take long for Margo to see that Eve may have an ulterior motive, and when her career, friendships and relationship all come under fire, it seems that Eve may be cleverer than she allowed anyone to believe.
It might not sound like the most original tale, but this is the archetype on which so many of these backstage dramas have been based. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s dialogue is so sharp, it feels like a slap in the face, especially when delivered from the spiked tongues of such a fine cast. George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter and Gary Merrill all star, as well as Marilyn Monroe in her debut movie role. From the infamous line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” to the film’s crushing cynicism twisted into an endless array of darkly hilarious scenes, the screenplay remains one of the greatest ever written.
However for me, there is one factor that tips the movie into fully-fledged out-of-this-world brilliance, and that’s Davis’ central performance. How she didn’t take home a third Best Actress Oscar for this film is beyond me—however many believe that a vote split occurred with Gloria Swanson for her similarly excellent turn in Sunset Boulevard, allowing Judy Holliday to spring an upset for Born Yesterday. In one of my favourite scenes, Davis, dressed to the nines in an exquisite gown commands the screen like only the very greatest of movie stars can. She circles the room, forcing the camera to follow her sweeping steps, while costar Gary Merrill is stuck trailing in her wake. Her movements are so fluid, they actually work towards emphasising the dialogue. Watch how she flicks her hand through her hair with great dramatic flair, just as she puts most emphasis on a certain word in a sentence. The argument that follows between the characters is all about Davis. With some twenty years in the business and around sixty movies under her belt, she knew exactly how to work the camera in every shot. It’s magnificent.
If you’ve never seen All About Eve then I implore you to seek it out. The term ‘classic’ is thrown around all too often, but in this instance it couldn’t be truer.
So I guess that’s that. I’d love to hear what you think about these films. Feel free to rip the list to shreds if that’s how you feel, maybe I can convice you otherwise…