Some Favourite Movies

There are many movies I admire but have little wish to see again. For example, The Revenant was beautiful and powerful, but harrowing. And it's been many years since I last watched Schindler's List, though I admire the film greatly.

However, there are some movies I keep returning to. Compiling a list of these, and stepping back, I can see some patterns. Almost none of them are set in the present. Almost all of them are visually engrossing, usually for a combination of scenery, period detail, and some combination of cinematography, editing, atmosphere, music. Almost all of them have a central romance with lots of loneliness, ache and longing.

I've realized over the past few years that I enjoy visual storytelling. While words are an important part of life, the deepest experiences are non-verbal. Love, fear, courage, sacrifice, desire, anger, bitterness, resignation, contentment, elation, belonging, grief, consolation, happiness. Do any of these need words? Are they not most strongly conveyed in facial expressions, in gestures, in actions? To me, the richest scenes in movies are where the whole palette is used, where the mix of what we see and what we hear (and what is left unseen and unheard) inspire complex emotions. Dialogue is only part of what's happening, and sometimes it's pure smoke, obscuring reality. The polite formalisms of the Victorian drawing room can be a mask of conformity, and it's only in subtle physical cues we sense all is not as it seems.

For me, there is also a purely aesthetic side to watching a movie. I recall a brief transition scene in Pride and Prejudice (listed below), where Bingley leaves Netherfield Park, pried away from his love. The sense of life receding is aptly conveyed by a shot of servants drawing curtains, putting sheets over the furniture, and doors closing. I recall watching it for the first time in a theatre and being struck at how I could almost feel the texture of the billowing sheets. Together with the period architecture and costumes, the scene filled my senses. I think every film below has this element of rich visual texture. Of all the movies in the list, I think I would have to rank The Tree of Life as the pinnacle of poetic visual experience. I recall having tears in my eyes just watching the trailer. From that point on I have been in awe of Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer. (Considering he won the Academy Award for best cinematography 3 years in a row, I'm not alone in my admiration.)

Although there is some excellence in each film listed, an excellence that I might be able to articulate, the reason I'm drawn into repeated viewing is probably found in the peculiarities of my own psyche. After all, who can explain why someone falls in love with this person rather than that? I think we would all agree that there is something more going on than can be measured by ticks on a checklist of attributes. Still, I'll try to give some indication about what the movie is about, and what I like so much about it.

If some film in the list piques your curiosity enough to watch it, then of course I hope you'll like it too. If that is indeed the case, I would be happy to discuss it with you in person. You might point out to me a new depth. And, at the very least I'll have the pleasure of revisiting a beloved movie with someone like-minded. If, however, your reaction is tepid, or worse, I would be happier not to hear about it. I've had enough of the experience of being thrilled about something only to find the others around me unmoved. (Every mathematician knows this experience all too well.)

The list is in the order they came to mind, and so no ranking is implied.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981). I watch the film every few years, and I've read the John Fowles source novel several times. For its day, the film raised the bar for the vividness and accuracy of its portrayal of Victorian England. And the Dorset countryside is breathtaking. However, the primary draw for me is Meryl Streep's performance as Sarah Woodruff, the enigmatic, melancholic, sensitive outcast who captivates Jeremy Irons' proper gentleman. Perhaps a good psychologist could explain what it is about the character that keeps me coming back again and again. Now, the novel is replete with historical commentary by the author, contrasting his characters' era and ours. To achieve this end in the film, Harold Pinter's screenplay used the movie-within-a-movie conceit, with the onscreen couple also having an affair behind the scenes. However, the modern story is rather pedestrian by comparison, which is likely part of the point. Is the actor seeing her, or the character she's playing?

In the Mood for Love (2000). Unexpressed love amidst the social conformity of 1960's Hong Kong. For me, no other film so powerfully captures the ache of loneliness, love, and longing. Who would have thought a long, slow-motion shot of Maggie Cheung walking to get noodles would be so entrancing? This is Wong Kar Wai's masterpiece.

The English Patient (1996). I was hooked from the opening credits: a haunting Hungarian folk song plays while a watercolour of a swimmer is skillfully executed in close-up. Then the image merges into a biplane soaring over endless desert dunes. At the close of World War 2, a dying man recollects his passionate but tragic love affair that unfolded during an archaeological expedition in North Africa on the verge of war. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are the two lovers. A line from the movie summarizes the story well: New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire. 

Onegin (1999). Based on the work by Pushkin, a jaded 1820's Russian aristocrat (Ralph Fiennes, again) inherits his uncle's estate in the provinces, where he gets to know some of his neighbours. One of them is Liv Tyler, so you think you know immediately where things are headed. But there are twists, and, being a Russian tale, much suffering. Sets, costumes, atmosphere - the steamy breath of horses in a troika in a wintry landscape - the scratching of quill on paper - the feel of the pages of novels published in that era. And Liv Tyler surprised me as the quiet, serious younger sister with hints of something deeper. So often movie romances struggle to transcend raw physical desire. I often ask myself what the characters would talk about afterward, lying in bed together. The quality of their dialogue is usually closely correlated with my interest in their romance.

The Age of Innocence (1993). Martin Scorcese's labour of love from the novel of Edith Wharton (one of my favourites). A window on the New York aristocracy of the 1870's. Daniel Day Lewis marries the nice girl (Winona Ryder) everyone approves of, even when he realizes he's in love with her unconventional, married cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer). Gorgeously filmed -- a number of scenes seem like contemporary paintings come to life. Joanne Woodward's narration is the best I've encountered, wonderfully capturing the novelist's style. I think I rewatch this every couple of years.

Saving Private Ryan (1998). I would say this is Spielberg's best film, the first war movie I had ever seen that had a ring of truth about it:  WW2 was a dirty, unglamorous, horrible, costly slog. The first few minutes redefined what a war sequence ought to feel like, and have not been surpassed since. And it quickly defines Tom Hanks's character as a gifted leader, the kind of person everyone would want in charge of their outfit.

Minority Report (2002). Brilliantly-crafted Spielberg sci-fi. In the future, a freak drug side-effect allows some people to have visions of murders yet to be committed. The "framed cop" conceit is carried out in a wonderfully-realized future world of jet-packs and ubiquitous surveillance, but which seems, in many ways, not too distant from our own. Though the story centres around Tom Cruise, my attention was rivited on Samantha Morton's sensitive, other-worldly seer.

Pride & Prejudice (2005). Yes, I like this much more than the BBC adaptation from 1995. Maybe it's just my sexual orientation: Keira Knightley's perfect Elizabeth Bennet is more of a draw than Colin Firth's perfect Mr. Darcy. Besides, the filming is much more immediate and immersive. The Meryton Town Hall dance actually feels real: the music is lively; it's crowded and sweaty; people are having fun. The Bennets' home feels more down-to-earth. But part of the appeal is the sheer number of gorgeous scenes, as, for instance, watching Lizzy's dress blow in the wind on a cliff-top vista in the Lake District, while Dario Marinelli's score swells in the background.

Jane Eyre (2011). I admit I'm a sucker for Jane Eyre adaptations. The young governess, raised in a harsh orphanage, is noticed by her gruff, world-weary employer. I've enjoyed the Zeffirelli version (Hurt/Gainsbourg), the last 2 BBC versions (Hinds/Morton & Stephens/Wilson), but I've rewatched this one more than the others. Perhaps it's the visual storytelling, the music (Dario Marianelli again), the costumes and sets/countryside. (For example, there's no words for the first 5 minutes of the film.)

Pulp Fiction (1994). After so many Quentin Tarentino films, it may be hard to remember how fresh and exciting Pulp Fiction was. I had never seen anything like the opening scene: a dining couple wonders why nobody robs restaurants. Zippy dialogue, an affectionate kiss, and then suddenly she's standing on a table screaming she'll kill anyone who moves. A vein of Monty Pythonesque humour runs through the interlocking stories of organized crime. On a way to a hit, vicious hoodlums have interesting conversations about how life in Europe is different than life in America, and about what level of intimacy is implied by a foot massage. We wind up liking these people, and there is enough of an air of unreality that we can sympathize with their problem of accidentally blowing someone's head off in a car, and needing to get it cleaned up before Bonnie comes home. (If your reaction is "I could never laugh about such a horrible thing," then recall the Dark Knight scene from The Holy Grail. What's so funny about someone's limbs getting sliced off? If you didn't think that was funny either, then I don't know what to say. Maybe this movie isn't for you.)

The Tree of Life (2011). The best of the collaborations between Terrence Malick (director) and Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematographer). A middle-aged man in a spiritual crisis reflects on his childhood, and the contrast between the "way of nature" and the "way of grace." I found it a powerful work of religious art, and easily the most beautiful film ever shot.

A Very Long Engagement (2004). In the years after WW1, a young French woman (Audrey Tautou) tries to discover the fate of her fiance, a condemned soldier. A mystery wrapped in a panorama of life during the war and after. Warmly human. Beautifully filmed. And you'll have to watch the end credits to see that, yes, that really was Jodie Foster speaking fluent French. Kleenexes may be required.

The Piano (1993). Holly Hunter won the best actress Oscar as a mute woman arriving in frontier New Zealand to become the wife of a farmer she's never met. In tow is her piano, which is her true voice. But all around seem deaf to her song, save the illiterate neighbour (Harvey Keitel). Michael Nyman's score is brilliant: faithful to the period, but passionately idiosyncratic. Amid the mud and grime (and white colonial oppression, ignorance and conformity) an exploitative relationship takes an unexpected turn.

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