What I love about film is that it can be such a beautiful, powerful, and entertaining art form. Some movies do a great job as pure, simple entertainment, others achieve the status of high art. Such great films have the ability to communicate in ways that plain words cannot.
If we have learned some great truth about the world, it does little good to simply tell another person about it. We tend to be very skeptical of free advice unless we can see for ourselves how it was reached, or we experience the lesson first hand. Art has the unique ability of allowing us to experience (through the artwork) something we might otherwise miss. The artist can lead us gently down the path that they followed to their conclusion and then we can really know the thing that they teach us. Art is the great communicator of wisdom.
I have put together a list of my 25 favorite movies, along with a short explanation of what makes each of them truly special to me. I will post these 25 films in 5 parts starting with 21-25, as listed below.
21. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Miyizaki’s beautiful 1984 fantasy has one of the best opening sequences of any film, regardless of genre, that I have seen. A beautiful and strange landscape with just a few words of dialogue and a completely enchanting score create an immersive atmosphere for the viewer within the first few minutes. ‘Nausicaä’ definitely falls under the category of ‘art’.
This film is a great example of sci-fi/fantasy done right. Good sci-fi/fantasy gives a sense of great scope, that there is a whole world beyond what the director has shown us. The world of ‘Nausicaä’ feels expansive and rich. We get the feeling that there is a detailed history, complex culture and vast geography to this place. Like most of Miyizaki’s work, the score in Nausicaä is brilliant. I’ve noticed in fact, that I have been humming the theme of the film pretty well continuously since I first saw it almost a year ago.
22. The Bourne Identity
‘The Bourne Identity’ marks a big shift in Hollywood action movies. The typical action movie before Bourne would be full of unrealistic gun fights, witty one-liners, 1 punch knockouts and so on. After the first Bourne film a lot of action movies became more realistic. The evolution of James Bond illustrates this change quite well. Before The Bourne series were the Pierce Brosnan 007 films (GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day), after Bourne the 007 franchise was rebooted with Daniel Craig. James Bond became more human than ever before. He would now fall down and bleed, lose fist fights, make mistakes and misjudgments etc.
‘The Bourne Identity’ was one of the first realistic and intelligent mainstream spy movies. Rather than shoot his way out of a situation, Jason Bourne would think carefully, find an intelligent solution and then act with absolute determination. What I love about this depiction of the ‘spy archetype’ is that this is closer to how it would be in real life. The best spy/assassin would be the one you never knew was there. Bourne would rather blend in than stand out. He is all business and no flash. Like a real spy, Bourne is trained in more than hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship. He has an excellent memory, speaks several languages, and is able to act like a normal citizen when necessary. Jason Bourne is compelling because we know the old action heroes wouldn’t stand a chance against him.
23. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
‘Fear and Loathing’ is one of a kind. Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s autobiographical novel of the same name, we follow ‘Raoul Duke’ (based on Thompson, played by Johnny Depp) on a bizarre drug-fueled journey to the heart of Las Vegas.
This film is great for its strangeness alone. No preparation and no warning, we are along for the ride with Duke and his ‘attorney’ (Benicio Del Toro). While Duke is clearly insane, and tripping on drugs, he makes some very compelling observations about people, the bizarre nature of Las Vegas and the deranged state of the American psyche and culture. The dialogue, delivered brilliantly by Depp, is oddly poetic. It does no justice to describe this film, it really must be seen to be appreciated. The quote below is from Duke at the start of the trip.
‘We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.’
‘Snatch’ is witty, stylish and highly entertaining. There might not be a lot of philosophical depth here but the characters are tremendous and the writing is sharp. Guy Ritchie’s unique style works brilliantly. While the average film has 1 or 2 really interesting characters, ‘Snatch’ has about a dozen. Easily one of the coolest movies around, ‘Snatch’ is memorable, quotable, and good for numerous viewings.
M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi/horror/thriller ‘Signs’ will likely be the most controversial film on my list. It has been criticized for having some questionable plot points and this criticism may be warranted to some degree, but I love ‘Signs’ for the stuff it gets right.
The suspense, horror, and pacing are absolutely perfect in this film. Things start off with a little foreshadowing and a few false-scares while the characters and their backgrounds are being established. While the incidents start happening on the farm, we see only glimpses and shadows of whatever it is that is out there. We hear some noises — the dog barks and growls at something hidden out in the cornfield but we are kept in the dark. While the larger events of the movie progress, Shyamalan keeps up an interesting story with Graham (Mel Gibson) and his struggle with his family. We learn little bits about his past and that his wife has died somewhat recently, but this story is told gradually as well. Below is one example of the ‘build-up, then reveal’ technique used by the director.
One night after hearing something outside, Graham decides he’s got to go and investigate. He grabs a flashlight and points it toward the dark wall of corn and steps in. As he wanders through the field he hears more noises and tries to find where they’re coming from, but becomes disoriented. Graham hears something again but this time it is much closer and directly behind him. When he spins around to see what it is he drops the flashlight and it goes out, leaving him in total darkness. He scrambles to turn it back on and as soon as he points the beam down the row of corn we catch a bare, non-human foot disappearing into the corn. Terrified, Graham turns and runs back to the house, the wind picks up, and the unsettling score plays.
This sequence works terrifically for a few reasons:
- Graham is alone when he goes out to the field (we share his view so we are alone with him).
- Our only light is the flashlight (which leaves our peripheral view dark).
- The field of corn offers no wall to keep our back to (We feel vulnerable).
- The corn obstructs our view so that we can see only a few feet in any direction (again we feel vulnerable).
- Because of our limited view we become disoriented and unsure of which direction the house is (our safe place).
- We hear the noise coming from behind us and then our light goes out (now we feel like the thing might suddenly get us).
- The light goes on and we see for a split second a foot disappear into the field as if walking away (the thing was standing right in front of us!).
- Graham turns and runs, the wind blows and the music comes on (this does a great job of heightening the scare we just had).
Our greatest fear has always been the unknown. It is far scarier to hear some noises and then see a foot, than to see the monster clearly. Through the whole film Shyamalan shows us little glimpses and shadows and suggestions of some mysterious and dangerous thing out there. Each time there is a tense build up and we are shown a little more, and each time it is scarier than the last. ‘Signs’ is the perfect horror/thriller.