15 June, 2018

Fifty Favorite Films

My parents started me out young — so young that my feet didn't even touch the sticky floor when I took my seat beside them. The theaters were small, always. I didn't see the interior of a multiplex before age eleven, whereas I could describe for you, in immense detail, the lobbies, the concession counters, and even the uniforms worn by the young adults who tore our tickets in half as we passed into the sancta santorum and seated ourselves among the twenty or thirty seats of the Bijou, the Fine Arts, or the Tivoli. These places ran all-weekend screenings of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Spike and Mike, Fritz Lang, Ed Wood, Frederico Fellini…. We watched so many subtitled foreign films that, to this day, I'm still more apt to read words that appear on a screen before placing full attention on the images surrounding them. I do really well watching closed-captioned TV.

An indoctrination into the world of limited-release, foreign, and revival cinema endowed me with broad-ranging tastes and an eye for color, for style, for symbolism. I like films that take risks. The more a movie lets its audience come to its own conclusions, make its own interpretations, instead of prodding it down the narrow road of plot by means of musical stings or sentimental yanks (for his abominable Forrest Gump, Robert Zemekis earned permanent shit-list status), the more I appreciate it. Several people have asked me, over the years, what my very favorite films are, so I figured that a list was in order. I did the same with my forty favorite fiction books a few years ago and got some positive feedback. Whether this is as interesting or not remains to be seen.

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Such a weird concept: a hidden door in an office building leads down a tunnel, into the perception center of a well-known actor. Being John Malkovich is as brilliant as it is bizarre.

Big Fish is director Tim Burton's paean to the power of storytelling. Its premise — a father who teaches his practical son to find enjoyment in the suspension of disbelief — echoes a debate my father and I used to have, and the movie is one of just a few that's made me teary-eyed.

I'm a fan of Philip K. Dick's trippy sci-fi novels and stories, and the writer's fingerprints are all over Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's fine adaptation of his work. As of this writing, I have yet to see the sequel. I have, however, seen all three edits of the original and insist that The Final Cut is the best.


As the rest of this list shows, I'm kind of a David Lynch enthusiast. The first of his movies that I saw was this one, Blue Velvet, arguably his best-known, in which Dennis Hopper gives the most unsettling performance of his career, Dean Stockwell flirts with androgyny, and suburban idealism gets a nasty black eye.

I concede that Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder mangling British accents threatens the ambiance of this movie at countless points, but Francis Ford Coppola manages such gorgeously stylized imagery, and Gary Oldman is pitch-perfect as the undead Count in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Ex-Python Terry Gilliam's made a number of surreal movies in his day. None, for my money, beats the futuristic high jinks he (metaphorically speaking) filmed through a fish-eye lens, in Brazil.

Moody, artful, and generally sublime, Bride of Frankenstein is easily the best of all Universal Sutdios' classic monster movies.


Playfully dark cinematography pairs with a plot about a mad scientist who steals children's dreams because he can't have his own. Whimsical use of the butterfly effect, oafish dwarfs, and Ron Perlman as a big lummox with a heart of gold keep the material from slipping into ghoulishness. There are more smiles here than scares, in The City of Lost Children.

Compare that to A Clockwork Orange. This notorious adaptation of Anthony Burgess's controversial novel about one juvenile delinquent's arrest and experimental "reform" in a near-future Britain was rated X when first released in the United States. There was just a jot too much of ultraviolence for the MPAA's taste. Forty-odd years later, viewers see more graphic sex and violence while watching Wednesday-night cable.

Coraline is a stop-motion fantasy based on Neil Gaiman's children's novel of the same name, but Laika's animation is spectacular and I think there's plenty here for adults to appreciate.

The first time I saw Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas, my ticket cost a buck. The dollar theater's sound system sucked, but still: $1 for two hours of highly stylized, genre-bending noir that twists and coils until you can scarcely be certain of what's what was a bargain.

Forget the early-aughts remake starring Keanu Reeves; the 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Michael Rennie and a flesh-and-blood human inside the big silver Gort costume, is classic, meaning-rich science fiction. Klaatu barada nikto! Because there's hope for humanity yet.


Tangent universes, scary bunny-men (plus Echo & the Bunnymen on the soundtrack), plummeting aircraft, and the most beautiful phrase in the English language — cellar door — make Donnie Darko a film too compelling to keep from discussing for days after watching it.

The local public library, where I grew up, loaned VHS cassettes of hundreds of classic movies, and young Byron loved taking his library card out for them. Some that I returned to again and again were the Universal Studios monster movies. Tod Browning's Dracula, with the incomparable Bela Lugosi, earned its place on this list early.

One could call Edward Scissorhands a study of how fragile society's conditional acceptance of difference is. One could say that Edward Scissorhands advocates self-isolation by those with extraordinary qualities, that its message is that the world doesn't deserve what unique people bring into it. Or one could declare Edward Scissorhands a beautiful, tragicomic suburban fantasy and walk away, at the end credits, carrying the glow of that.

Another Tim Burton delight is Ed Wood, his black-and-white biopic of the infamous director who brought us such schlock as Glen or Glenda? and the truly awful Plan Nine from Outer Space (neither of which appear on this list).

Decidedly more fraught than the life of a cross-dressing Hollywood director is the one dramatized in David Lynch's second most straightforward film, The Elephant Man. The tone is also a lot less jokey. A lot less.

It's doubtful that any remake will equal the finesse with which 1931's Frankenstein was scripted, acted, and filmed. There's a good reason that it's Boris Karloff's flat-headed, bolt-necked, sunken-eyed portrayal of the monster that comes to mind when we think of that character.


Not many people seem to know about Freaks, the early talkie about love, camaraderie, and revenge among members of a traveling circus. They should. How many other movies this old have the power to astound jaded modern audiences? Freaks is melancholy, heartwarming, and horrific in the perfect proportions.

Gattaca is the type of pensive science fiction that I love watching, as it grapples with big moral questions at the level of the individual. In this case, the issue is human genetic engineering. A lesser film would've been fine with leaving ethics behind as it related one poor, unenhanced man's audacious journey to pass as one of society's gene-perfect elite. Gattaca has movement and suspense, but the human element never takes second place to them. It really is extraordinary.

The story of a young woman's mental breakdown and resulting institutionalization in a 1960s American mental facility, Girl, Interrupted is one of those rare movies that's as good as the novel it was adapted from. I think it's also the last worthwhile thing Winona Ryder appeared in.

Laugh all you like, but I admit it unreservedly and without shame: I've watched Groundhog Day well more than fifty times. Seven of those were in a theater, when it was still in wide release. Then I wore out a VHS copy. Then I bought it on DVD. I still feel disappointed when it doesn't appear in the TV listings on any given February second. Outdated as they are, I also continue to drop references to the movie during conversations. What's wrong with me?

Fake suicides never seemed as funny as when the young male lead in Harold and Maud stages them for the benefit of his wealthy, seen-it-all parents. Except he really is suffering, and they can't see that past the theatrics. Enter Maud, an elderly iconoclast, living her life to the fullest, happy, free, and completely in the moment. The two strike up a friendship, then a romance, and the story that unfolds makes Harold and Maud the closest thing to a romantic comedy on this list.

The Hudsucker Proxy is a delightfully quirky satire, starring Tim Robbins as a peon who finds himself neck-deep in corporate scheming.

Released in 1956, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers played off the rampant paranoia sweeping the United States during the McCarthy era, resulting in a taut, tense alien-invasion movie that holds up well to this day.


Anticipating invasion, all of the residents abandon their small French town during World War One, but neglect to evacuate the local insane asylum, where the committed finally decide to take charge of their lives. That's the premise of King of Hearts, a lovely, delirious comedy that I can't recommend highly enough.

Jim Henson's Creature Shop provided the fantastical beasts that inhabit it, but it's David Bowie's turn as the Goblin King that really made Labyrinth. Sure, it's a kids' movie, but I'm far from the only adult to tell you it's worth watching even if you think you've outgrown fairy tales.

My friend Brahm and I used to make a point of watching Monty Python's Life of Brian every Easter. What better way to celebrate the holiday than with this hilarious, irreverent comedy about a thirty-something Judean man who gets mistaken for the Messiah and ends up, accompanied by one hell of a catchy musical number ("Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"), crucified?

For his role in The Machinist, a disorienting waking dream of a film about a man who hasn't slept in a year, Christian Bale starved himself until he weighed less than 100 pounds. The grim determination of the actor is matched by his character, a man haunted — in a very literal sense — by the past.

Perhaps equally haunting, and certainly just as sad, is Magnolia, a gorgeous movie comprised of several separate but linked episodes about the ordeals of everyday people.

Another favorite film of mine that happens to star David Bowie is The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Thin White Duke plays an extraterrestrial living incognito among humans, wracked by ennui and homesickness. The movie is languid and poetic, with long shots devoid of dialog or action, so be prepared, if you're going to watch it with a date, for her to fall asleep beside you on the couch. Take it from a guy who did, and wasn't.

Like just about everyone else in Western society, I was blown away by The Matrix (less so, its sequels). Despite its turn-of-the-millennium trappings, I find that the groundbreaking special effects, classic myth-inspired storytelling, and advocacy of disillusionment are timeless.


Several silent films came very close to making this list, but there was no question about 1927's Metropolis. Fritz Lang directed this stunning sci-fi paean to the working class, creating imagery that burned itself into my mind at a young age. I first saw it at Kansas City's Fine Arts Theater (the one I mentioned at the top of this post) when I was seven. I was rapt. From the film's shimmering skylines to the final flickering of the flames of revolt, Metropolis astounds. I've read that Criterion recently released a new, extended restoration of the film that's become definitive, which I long, rather powerfully, to see.

Someone once said that discussion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, specifically the sort that includes (as is virtually unavoidable) quotes from the movie, is like a black hole: nothing within a certain range of it can escape; and the more it absorbs, the larger and denser it grows. At a minimum, it's like Spanish flu: highly contagious and apt to make you die… from laughter.

Monty Python's Meaning of Life isn't as consistently hilarious, being a collection of skits relating to the different stages of life — from the rousing "Every Sperm Is Sacred" musical number, to John Cleese's concluding monologue about how best to live. Nevertheless, none of the bits land flat, and the Pythons' signature absurdity reaches such heights that the film as a whole is raised to the level of art.

I'm ordinarily allergic to "cute," but Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom manages to tell the story of a runaway scout and his quest for independence without devolving into a treacly mess, thanks to its top-notch cast and relatively light touch of twee.

Far on the opposite end of the spectrum is Mulholland Dr., David Lynch's surreal murder mystery. Nothing cloying to be found here, just confusion, suspicion, and existential dread.

A taxi driver in Los Angeles. A taxi driver in Rome. A taxi driver in Helsinki. Night on Earth is made up of five distinct vignettes about taxi drivers, these and two others, and one memorable fare that each takes. One is funny, one is tragic, and the others fall somewhere in between. Like life, this film runs the gamut of human experience.

George A. Romero's 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, set the bar and spawned an entire genre of horror that, in my opinion, would never quite equal its progenitor.

Stop-motion animation hit a new high point with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie's craftsmanship is incredible, its story is utterly winning, its songs are hummable.

Jack Nicholson embodies the unregenerate R.P. McMurphy from Ken Kesey's novel perfectly, and I remember thinking that no one but Louise Fletcher could've been a better fit for the part of Nurse Ratched. The first time I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I missed Big Chief's perspective from the book for a while. The movie's so good that I quickly got over that.


I have never seen another sci-fi film that so perfectly mates plausibility, ingenuity, suspense, and a budget so meager that it makes those of most student films seem lavish — yet that's what Primer, quietly released in the early aughts, does. It's demanding, yes, refusing to dumb down the logistics of time travel for its audience, and delivering exactly zero fancy effects to wow your eyes, but, holy crap, is it ever rewarding of your attention!

Another genre that I don't much get into is family drama. The Royal Tenenbaums, about one man's questionable tactics for getting back into his family's good graces, proves an exception. I've got the writing and directing of Wes Anderson, who knows how to create characters we like despite their unsavory traits, to thank for this fact.

Slickly remade thirty-some years later, with extra star power, my preference is for the original Solaris, released in 1972. This beautiful, contemplative Russian sci-fi film grapples with loss and attachment better than any other movie I've seen in the genre, and presents a magnificent panorama in the process.

I watched a fair amount of anime in my teens. A lot of it was the stereotypical mix of science fiction and action — geek catnip. Spirited Away is anime of another sort, a gorgeous Japanese fairy tale about a young girl lost and trying to find her way out of the Spirit World. Its detail is stunning; even the color palette of the animation feels ethereal.

After one tenant of a creepy Paris apartment commits suicide there, a hapless office drone moves in. He becomes obsessed with the former resident while nursing a growing paranoia about the neighbors. The Tenant, a sublime suspense by Roman Polanski, is a work of art deserving of our attention even if its creator's an odious human being.

THX 1138 was George Lucas's first film and surpasses much of what came after. In a future society, people live underground. Computers regiment the onscreen entertainment that pervades their existences. Pharmaceuticals regulate everyone's emotional states. No one has a proper name, just a letter-and-number designation. Then THX 1138 falls in love, violating the social order, and flees. Risking everything for love isn't a new story, but it can make for a really good one.

Since Franz Kafka's novel The Trial was never finished, Orson Welles adapted it at his own peril. Anthony Perkins plays the falsely (?) accused Josef K. to a T in this imperfect film. There are a few issues with continuity, but it's supposed to be expressionistic, and its vibrancy makes me love it too much not to have on this list.

Twelve Monkeys is the second Terry Gilliam movie to appear here (or the fifth, if you include his Monty Python work). It was probably his biggest commercial success. I mean: time travel, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe…. He had me at "time travel."


A retrospective of Stanley Kubrick's movies would be one long look at greatness, but to my mind it all started with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director's legendary fastidiousness fills this (I'll say it) masterpiece, all the way down to the silverware. Less sci-fi than a hypnotic meditation on time, with near-infinite sweep, it's poetry, visual poetry, plain and simple. Don't try to solve the mystery, just let yourself be drawn in by it.

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