So, the original plan for the “month of lists” is lying in ruins along the side of the road at this point – given that it’s now June. Perhaps because of that, I’ve decided to cheat a little bit and expand the favorite movie list from the twenty in Steven Wilson’s book to twenty-three. Why? Well, why not? Also, paring this list down proved harder than I’d imagined (if I could get down to only 100 songs, right?) and I didn’t feel like cutting any others. Twenty-three it is. Think of some as bonus tracks, I guess.
As with the favorite songs list, the operative frame for this list is “favorites.” There’s at least one movie on this list that is generally regarded as bad, but I love it anyway and it’s a fav. Likewise, this list omits some really excellent movies that are, nonetheless, so emotionally destructive that I have no desire to see again – things like Requiem for a Dream, Graveyard of the Fireflies, and Hunger. It also omits some really great things that I really like, but nonetheless wouldn’t quite call a “favorite” – like, say, Citizen Cain.
Oh, and spoilers will abound. Most of these movies have been out for years so, really, you’ve got nothing about which to complain.
With that said, away we go . . .
Directed by Milos Forman
Written by Peter Shaffer
I’m not the biggest fan of Mozart, years of slaving away at his magical clarinet concerto notwithstanding. When it comes to orchestral stuff my preference runs to the later romantic and early modern composers. Which is why a lot of what is in Amadeus – the music, the operas – wouldn’t do much for me if the actual story itself wasn’t so compelling. Yes, I know, it’s not historically accurate (neither is Shakespeare – let it go), but I’m a sucker for a story about rivals involved in a petty dance of destruction (see also, The Prestige, below). That the film is beautiful to look at, centered on a pair of great performances, and a joy to listen to is what probably pushed this to the list ahead of my other Forman favorite, The People Versus Larry Flynt.
Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher & David Peoples
I was working on (or at least thinking about) this list when the news came down that Vangelis had died. Blade Runner is a triumph of atmosphere, visual and audible, more than anything else. Without Vangelis’ score, a ground-breaking electronic soundscape making full use of the new(ish) Yamaha CS-80 synth, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. I mean, yes, the whole concept is interesting and asks questions about what it means to be human and everything, but even if Blade Runner was just the visuals, the music, and Roy Batty’s “tears in the rain” speech it would still make this list.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Directed by John Landis
Written by Dan Akroyd & John Landis
The blame or praise for this one being on the list lies solely with my older brothers, who introduced me to The Blues Brothers (the band and the movie) at an early, impressionable age. The music is the highlight here, with the band joined by R&B luminaries like Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, and Ray Charles (among others) – hell, Joe Walsh even turns up in the “Jailhouse Rock” scene in the end! And there will never be a more touching and poignant version of “Stand By Your Man” put to film. But the straight comedy bits are mostly gold, too, including the running bit with a murderous Carrie Fisher that only gets explained when it has to. Also, there’s a little car chase that’s kind of fun.
Bob Roberts (1992)
Directed by Tim Robbins
Written by Tim Robbins
Whoo, boy, here’s one that continues to be sadly relevant in the modern world. The titular Bob Roberts is a “conservative folk singer” who made millions with junk bonds, hostile takeovers, and the like and decides to run for the US Senate in Pennsylvania. His opponent is an old-line liberal Democrat (basically a Ted Kennedy stand in) played to smarmy perfection by Gore Vidal (basically playing himself). The movie follows the Roberts campaign (run by Alan Rickman) as scandal swirls around it related to drugs and overseas shenanigans (rooted out by journalist Giancarlo Esposito). The songs are deadpan perfect (one anthem is “The Times Are Changing Back”). But what really sells it these days is the way a near-cult following grows around Roberts (including a young Jack Black) that, when it’s shown in the end that he’s a complete fraud, simply doesn’t care. Prescient, no?
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown
If I was forced to name an absolute favorite movie, this might wind up being it. I love the blending of “reality” and fantasy. I love the dark humor, with several running jokes. I love Robert de Niro almost unrecognizable until he’s swallowed up by a massed ball of waste paper. But I also love the story behind the movie, the battle Gilliam had to fight to get it released the way he wanted it (in the United States, anyway) and the amazingly odd edit the studio chief put together of it. Gilliam said he wanted to make a movie where the happy ending was a man going insane, which the studio cut reduced to a triumphant “love conquers all” ending. Gilliam’s vision is brilliant. The oddball alternate reality version is an fascinating comparison.
Breaker Morant (1980)
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens & Bruce Beresford
I saw this for the first time in a military history class in college, which makes sense. It’s a true story from the Second Boer War where a trio of Australian soldiers are put on trial for killing prisoners and deals with the clash between established notions of just war (don’t kill prisoners!) and the evolving nature of war itself (guerilla tactics and how to respond to them). They’re given an inexperienced Australian solicitor to defend them and it’s made clear that they’re to be (in the words of a book the one whose death sentence is commuted) Scapegoats of the Empire. It’s an idea movie, a great lawyer movie, and contains one of the best last lines in all of cinema.
Directed by Kevin Smith
Written by Kevin Smith
Dogma deals with bigger ideas, but dammit, Clerks is just funnier. It’s dumb in a lot of ways and far from a work of distinction when it comes to visuals, but it’s full of individually hilarious scenes and conversations that really probably have no place being in a movie. Yes, the second Death Star discussion (*ahem* see below), but also there is the stuff about position dictating behavior and the contrast between Dante’s life of obligation and Randall’s care-free approach to living (note they both wind up largely in the same place). Plus, this is another one of the those movies with a great story behind it.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee
Another movie that’s decades old, yet sadly remains so relevant today. You could easily see the spark that grows into the literal fire at the end of the movie happening today online, with sides quickly drawn over a small, but meaningful, incident that touches on the history of racism in this country. Oh, and don’t forget the horrific act of senseless police violence that ultimate sets off the tinder keg. The cast here is amazing, as is the score, as Lee manages to pull together an ensemble of characters that are each well drawn and compelling in their own right. It’s a joy in a lot of spots, until it hits you in the face.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George
Another for the “still relevant after all these years” file. Strangelove is a master class in making a comedy that is not inherently funny. It works so well because everybody is playing everything perfectly straight (the “you can’t fight in the war room” is not really a punch line), which keeps it both darkly funny and terrifying. There’s an additional gloss to the proceedings these days as General Ripper comes off as the prototypical Q-follower and represents the danger of those folks actually gaining power. Which, in some cases, they have. Where’s my falling bomb and ten-gallon hat?
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan
I am of a vintage that the original Star Wars trilogy is the one that means the most for me – I remember seeing Empire in the theater (I think on vacation visiting my aunt in Philly?) and still being slightly terrified by the guys walking up and down the aisles dressed as Darth Vader and a pair of Stormtroopers. Going back to Clerks, Dante is right that Empire is the best of the movies (including the two newer trilogies, which are OK), but not just because of the downer ending (life, Dante says, is a series of down endings). It’s because it’s a brilliant middle part in a trilogy, moving the entire plot along while deepening our understanding of the characters and telling a fairly self-contained story. There’s no wheel spinning here. Plus, the whole Vader-is-Luke’s-dad reveal really worked (in a way it couldn’t today in the age of spoilers).
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Few movies set outside LA or New York have such a firm sense of place as Fargo. From the frozen wastelands to the urban sprawl to the accents, there’s nothing that’s ever really felt like this movie. It’s a story that drills down on one of the great truths of criminality – crooks are usually undone by their own fuck ups, not necessarily by brilliant police work. It’s worth noting that Marge’s best quality isn’t a particularly keen eye or Sherlock-style deductive logic, but sheer persistence and basic goodness. She has a good bullshit detector, not because she’s super cynical, but because she isn’t. It’s why the creepy stuff with guy from high school is there, to show she still has blind spots. But I’ll give Marge her due – I use “he’s fleeing the interview!” way more often then I should in casual conversation.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Aaron Sorkin
I joked once to my wife that if we’re scrolling through the TV and this is on that I have to stop and watch it or risk being disbarred. It’s not quite like that, but I am pulled into this pretty much any time I see it. Part of it, of course, is that it’s a quintessential lawyer movie, with defense attorney’s striving fully to save their clients’ lives. But part of it is I really fall for Sorkin’s dialog. I know it’s not realistic – people don’t talk that way! – but who cares? I also love the ending, after Nicholson’s epic meltdown, because it’s so true to the life of a defense attorney – yes, you won on the most serious charge, but your guys were still convicted of something and got kicked out of the Marines (which is what they wanted to avoid in the first place). Criminal defense is all about partial victories and learning to revel in them.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Directed by Mike Hodges
Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
I refuse to buy into the concept of “guilty pleasures.” It’s just a way for people to feel good about liking stuff that others don’t, which is bullshit – love what you love when it comes to art. I love Flash Gordon for all the cheese and questionable swashbuckling that runs all the way through it. There are a couple of really good lines in there (“tell me more about this man Houdini” gets me every time) and the whole big finish, with Queen blasting out the soundtrack, is as good as it gets. Special shout out to Max von Sydow, who somehow managed to appear in a lot of movies I love that are, let’s say, not that well received – Victory, Strange Brew, David Lynch’s Dune. I don’t know what that says about him. Or me.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors and my first instinct was to go with one of his more typical samurai movies (probably Ran, his visually sumptuous take on King Lear), but this movie kept picking at the back of my brain. There’s no fight scenes, no swordplay, but it’s haunting and beautiful. A meditation on life, death, and legacies, it’s a very humanistic film. The underlying message is that there is only one life we’re given that we can make a difference in peoples’ lives, even if only in small ways. More than that, it’s worth trying to do that.
LA Confidential (1997)
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Written by Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson
I’m not generally one to get bogged down in book versus movie comparisons (they’re different art forms with different strengths, weaknesses, and goals), but there’s an interesting detail in the novel LA Confidential that didn’t make it into the film. In the movie we hear that straight arrow cop Edmund Exley is a war hero, but only in the book do we learn that his status is a fraud. Thus, novel Exley comes to the story of LA Confidential – an interwoven tale of murder and utter corruption among the LAPD (based, as they say, on actual events) – with more baggage than his film counterpoint. I’m not sure which works better, though I tend to lean toward the movie, since it makes Exley’s awakening to moral compromise more heartbreaking. Oh, and the more times I watch this, the more I really feel for Russell Crowe’s meathead muscle who wants to be so much more.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Directed by Terry Jones
Written by Graham Champan, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin
Grail is probably funnier, although in a different way, but I think this is a much better movie. It’s less a collection of (albeit hilarious) set pieces and actually does tell a pretty well thought out story. Of course, it’s funny as hell and tears apart various sacred cows, religious and political. All of that’s still relevant, too, from the way people become mindless followers to the splintering of movements over the most minute details to the inertia of inaction. Plus, it ends with a jolly tune!
Directed by John Sayles
Written by John Sayles
It’s a pity that we’ve never gotten a movie about the West Virginia Mine Wars. Given the scale of the thing (the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War, the use of aircraft, etc.) it would make for an obvious movie subject. But if we can’t get that, Sayles’ exploration of the struggles to organize the mines in southern West Virginia at least gives a good sense of what might drive people to take up arms eventually. There are several people in the cast that were Sayles’ regulars who would go on to bigger (though not necessarily better) things, too, which is always fun.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Thea von Harbou
Pretty much every science fiction movie involving some kind of robot can trace its visual lineage back to this movie. It was so innovative for its time, so unlike anything that had ever been seen, that even if the story portions of the film completely sucked it would be a masterpiece. They don’t, although honestly it’s hard to gauge sometimes given that it’s a silent film with title cards and what not. Given that it’s a silent film, it’s had an interesting afterlife when it comes to soundtracks, most famously a 1984 version produced by Giorgio Morodor with input from (among others), Pat Benatar, Jon Anderson, and Loverboy. Honestly, there’s music out there for just about every taste to go along with this movie.
Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)
Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Public defenders, or anybody who practices criminal defense with regularity, inevitably get the “how do you defend those people?” question, where “those people” are, in the questioner’s mind, criminals. There are many answers to that question, but one of them is that if you don’t do everything you can (within the bounds of the law) in representing every defendant then you’ll be in no position to save a defendant who is actually innocent. This documentary presents one of those cases, as a defense team fights to save a 15-year-old from being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Thankfully, they did. This film won an Oscar, but Lestrade went on to even bigger things by essentially giving birth to the modern limited-series true-crime documentary with the (original version of) The Staircase.
The Prestige (2006)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
As I said earlier, I really dig stories about rivals who go to unhinged ends to one up each other. That’s the driving feature of The Prestige (which is why the book suffers by comparison, as it’s burdened with a needless frame story that distracts from the good stuff), but there’s a good bit of other weirdness going on that creates an interesting atmosphere. Nested timelines can be tricky, but the Nolans pull it off in a way that only deepens the back-and-forth between the two magicians. Plus, it’s got David Bowie as an otherworldly Tesla!
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer
Yeah, I’m surprised that the only director represented here twice (as a director – sorry, Terry Gilliam) is Rob Reiner. If A Few Good Men is one of my go-to lawyer movies, Spinal Tap is my go to music movie. It’s more of a collection of set pieces than a moving narrative, but almost each of them are hilarious and the music is just good enough to make you bang your head while realizing why Tap wasn’t the hugest band in the universe. It’s easier to show the rapid ascent of success (see below), but the lengthy ride back down is laden with more comic possibilities. That’s how you get to 11.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Written by Atom Egoyan
Fun fact – most lawyers aren’t litigators. I’m not. There are more of us who make our livings representing clients out of court – trial courts, particularly – than in it. This is my favorite movie about being a lawyer, even though there’s no dramatic courtroom climax or wronged client who needs defended. Instead, it’s about the toll it takes on a person’s psyche to make a living by inserting yourself into the tragedies of others. In this case, it’s the aftermath of a school bus crash in a remote Canadian town that killed most of the town’s children. Even if you’re trying to help, nobody is happy to see you and nobody is really happy with the limits of what you can do for them. This is also one of those examples of the movie improving on the book (as author Russell Banks admitted).
That Thing You Do! (1996)
Directed by Tom Hanks
Written by Tom Hanks
Movies about fictional creatives are difficult because it can be really hard to get whatever they create right. Spinal Tap does it with regard to low-brow metal and That Thing You Do! nails it with regard to early 1960s pop. The titular song in this movie brilliantly manages to be catchy enough to believable as a one hit wonder (sorry, Oneder) while not wearing out its welcome since you have to hear it over and over through the movie. The rest of the movie works really well, too, capturing the giddy highs of a completely unexpected rise to the top, without a hugely downer ending when the bottom falls out.