Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Main Essentials--Top 20 Favorite Films

This has not been a typical movie summer.

Ever since "Jurassic Park" gave me goosebumps at age 13, I've loved the summer movie season. While my friends were out playing baseball, enjoying the beach or (ahem) going on dates, I was finding my way to an air-conditioned movie theater to check out the latest, loudest and biggest releases of the year. "Independence Day," "The Rock," "Men In Black," "Gladiator"...these have been the films that have made summer one of my favorite times of the year.

I'm older and I'd hope my cinematic pallate has grown a bit more refined. I no longer salivate over the summer blockbusters...instead, my interest begins to pique around October, when studios start to send out their award fare. But I will always have a soft spot in my heart for loud, big, special-effects driven extravaganzas.

This year has found me more tied up with my day job and personal developments, with less time to hit a theater. Sure, I've seen "Iron Man 2" and "Shrek 4," but I still am not hitting the theaters with the furvor I was over the past years (much of that is due to the fact that my job makes me it harder to hit press screenings for freelance work). And so, there's been a lack of reviews that I hope to get back into the swing of doing in the next few weeks (after a business trip to Texas).

But, what better way to fill the void of reviews than by gathering my thoughts and updating a list of my 20 favorite films? I try to do this every year because, to be honest, my thoughts on what I love change from year to year as I see faults with old favorites ("The Matrix" no longer has a place on this list) and films grow on me after repeated viewings (there are a few films on this list that I hated upon seeing the first time). So, here are my top 20 films. There's really no particular for the first one. :-)

A few caveats: Yes, there are more than 20 films on this list...I eliminated a lot but, in some cases, I grouped where a trilogy or series might be appropriate. I know the list skews heavily to films made within the last 20-30 years. Part of that is, based on my background, I'm just starting to catch up with older films. But most of that is that this is a list of my 20 favorite films, not the 20 best films I've seen. There are cases to be made for including "Casablanca," "Citizen Kane," or others...but these are the films that warm my heart, challenge me and cause me to return time and again to find their secrets out. A list of the best films I've seen would, well, be nearly impossible to compile. And in the end, it's not about what's best but about the films that have touched me, made me smile and made my life a bit better. Some of these are masterpieces. Some are guilty pleasures. Some are incredibly flawed but put a smile on my face anyway. That's the movies, for ya...

1. The Shawshank Redemption: Ever since I saw this movie early in my college years, it has merited the top spot on my list. Frank Darabont's debut--and still his finest film--is a powerful meditation on hope and friendship, wrapped up in a dark, funny, adventurous and spiritual story. Technically, the film earns its top spot: the acting--particularly Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman--contains career-best performances and Darabont is a masterful writer-director, combining witty, smart dialogue with some beautifully composed shots. But emotionally, this is a deep, spiritual film told with earnestness and optimism, encouraging us that while people and circumstances may be at their worst, hope is still the best thing we have. It's the film I turn to when I feel despair coming on, and the beautiful passage where Andy plays opera for the inmates is my favorite film scene ever.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Michel Gondry's sci-fi romantic comedy is a wonderful mind-bender of a film. I love Charlie Kauffman's script and the way it weaves in and out of time and through the realities of the mind, always weird but never confusing. It's a brilliant concept--what if we could erase the memories of the person who broke our heart--and yet for all its intelligence, the film never feels cold or detached. This is an examination of the nature of memory, the power of love and the human tendency to go for easy fixes rather than growing through our pain. I love Jim Carrey, in a quiet and internalized performance, and Kate Winslet is perfection as the unpredictable and fragile Clementine. I love the film's ending and the arguments that can be had as to whether it is a happy or tragic finale.

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: I guess that on any given day you could substitute this film with "Jaws" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark." I love early Spielberg--the sense of wonder, fun and awe. "Close Encounters" always comes back as my favorite of his early works, though. I love the way he balances familiar, "real-life" suburbia with the awe of his otherworldly visitors. I love the final 30 minutes, and that Spielberg maintains a sense of innocence and awe--he doesn't turn it into a standard thriller, but allows us to imagine a harmonious meeting between two species. This is such a wonderful look at obsession and passion, and I love that Spielberg doesn't hold Roy Neary back from abandoning all to follow his heart at the end. It's a film that is told with a startling intelligence and skill and balanced with a childlike sense of wonderment.

4. Before Sunrise/Before Sunset: Yes, it's technically two films. But Richaard Linklater's minor masterpieces compose my favorite cinematic love story. "Before Sunrise," which chronicles the meeting of two young people over one night in Vienna, is one of the first films I watched with my now-fiancee. I love the look of Vienna, the rhythm of the dialogue and the feeling that I am eavesdropping on a first date. It's a plotless film, but it's mezmerizing to watch Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters fall in love. Even more, I love the 2004 follow up, where we catch up with the characters in Paris. It's a tougher film--Jesse and Celine both have scars from their night in Vienna and Linklater spends 3/4 of the film sidestepping the relationship issues, only to hit us with an emotional sledgehammer at the end. I love these characters and revisit this story once a year. "Before Sunset" has one of the most perfect final shots I've seen, but if Linklater wants to pick up the story again later this decade, I don't know that I'd mind.

5. WALL-E: I probably could fill this list only with Pixar movies if I wanted. No other studio is as consistent at turning out masterpieces as this one. And I debated about whether this slot should go to "Up" or "The Incredibles," both of which I love just as dearly. But "WALL-E" is such a brilliantly-conceived film, that it edges them out. I love this mixture of Charlie Chaplin, 2001 and Johnny 5. It's a funny, near-silent comedy that takes right turns into romance and hard science fiction, with a dash of sermonizing to boot. WALL-E and EVE have a beautiful love story, which is odd since they are two robots with limited vocabularies. But it doesn't matter; their waltz in space is one of my most beloved cinematic moments.

6. The Muppet Movie: For whatever reason, this movie was therapeutic for me as I turned 30. Perhaps it was just a nostalgia factor; I was a Muppet fan growing up and I don't know that I've ever stopped loving Kermit & Co. But really, I think it was the pure joy in this silly road trip comedy. I love the corny jokes, the silly songs and the general anarchy that permeates every frame. But deeper still is the pure earnestness in Kermit, probably no more autobiographical for Jim Henson than here. His desire to entertain, make people happy and help his friends achieve their dreams reminded me of my most innocent moments. It's a beautiful, joyful movie for the lovers and dreamers in all of us.

7. Almost Famous: Cameron Crowe is a favorite director of mine and the one film per director rule is the only thing keeping "Say Anything" off this list. "Almost Famous" is Crowe's masterpiece, a lovingly autobiographical love letter to 1970s rock and life on the road. Patrick Fugit is fittingly innocent as William Miller, the uncool witness to rock and roll debauchery and the one man who can reveal everyone's secrets. I love every character and every actor in this film, be it Billy Crudup as Stillwater's pretty boy or Kate Hudson as the mysterious Penny Lane. It's a movie that, when I put it on, just makes me grin from ear-to-ear, loving every minute I spend with this disfunctional family.

8. Taxi Driver: Probably the obvious choice for Scorsese movie, but I'm not going to apologize for that. I love this unnerving, dark odyssey. Robert Deniro's Travis Bickle is a haunting character. He's not a hero and not a villain...just a lonely man wanting to impress a girl and clean up the world. I know Travis Bickles, have heard them cry out for loneliness and vent their despair in howls of anger and promises of retribution. And yet, Travis is not a fearsome character. We sympathize with him and pity him. And only Deniro and Scorsese, with Paul Schraeder's bleak script, could pull that off.

9. Ghostbusters: A perfect comedy. This is a film that shouldn't work--big budget comedies are, as a rule, bloated and clunky. And yet, "Ghostbusters" makes me laugh each time. Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray created such a great concept--blue-collared supernatural exterminators, and the dialogue is intelligent, hilarious and absurd. Murray is, of course, the key...Peter Venkeman is the scientist who doesn't really believe all this supernatural stuff until it's staring him in the face. And even then, he's above it all, ready to crack a joke. The chemistry among the actors and director Ivan Reitman's ability to make the deadpan humor work among extravagant effects makes this one of the films I could put on any time and watch from beginning to end.

10. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: The go-to crazy comedy for this list was always "The Naked Gun." And while I still love Frank Drebin's adventure, I have to admit that "Anchorman" is probably the most infinitely quotable and aggressively funny films I've ever seen. Will Ferrell comedies are easy sells for me, and I've loved "Talladega Nights" and "Step Brothers," his other collaborations with director Adam McKay. But Ron Burgundy, with his deep voice, fine suits and love for scotch, it Ferrell's greatest creation. The supporting cast is just as hilarious, particularly Steve Carrell as the dim-witted weatherman ("I love lamp.") And the absurdity of the film, from the juvenile antics of the anchors to a no-holds-barred news reporter war (including horses and a trident), is so purely silly that it makes me giggle just remembering it. Parmount reportedly turned down a sequel. That is so not classy.

11. Hell House: I love a good documentary. And I wrestled with whether to put this, "Hoop Dreams," "Murderball" or "Young @ Heart" on this list. I settled with this--a look at a Texas church's efforts to construct and Evangelical haunted house--because no documentary has caused me to reflect on my faith, my efforts to share that faith and the motives for doing so. I love that the film is objective: it's fair to the teens putting on Hell House and also allows that they may be crossing a line. You don't question the church's devotion, but you do question their actions. The film looks at the attraction believers still have to sin and the danger of dressing up the Gospel. But it also is a celebration of passion and the desire to share Good News. An endlessly fascinating film.

12. A Simple Plan: I showed this to my fiancee a few months back and she couldn't get to the end. Sam Raimi's adaptation of Scott Smith's novel is dark, twisty noir. It's an examination of the depths greed will take us to and the evil that we are capable of. It's an intriguing question: if you found $3 million in the woods, would you keep it? And then Raimi lets fate run its course, drawing three men into an ever-tightening web of lies, mistrust and murder. If ever a film illustrated the theme "the love of money is the root of all evil," it is this film. And yet, Raimi pulls it off with flawless showmanship--the tragedy has an ironic comedy to it, the suspense is unbearably and the film is punctuated by career-high performances from Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton. A heartbreaking, gut-clenching thriller whose plausibility makes it all the more chilling and tragic.

13. Ikiru: I've seen this film once and it devastated me. Akira Kurosawa's look at a lonely Tokyo government worker facing his death is both joyful and sobering. This isn't a movie about a man deciding that he's going to live it up once he learns of his cancer--it's about a man who learns he is going to die, only to find he's never lived. It exposes the folly of "living it up" and tells about a man determined to live for something...and then contains a final act in which his life is celebrated and our own hypocrisy and timidity exposed.

14. Punch-Drunk Love: Pure poetry. I've told the tale often enough about how I hated this film upon first viewing, finding it confusing and frustrating. And yet, over time, it's won me over. I love this ode to love's ability to heal us. Paul Thomas Anderson isn't subtle with his symbolism or emotions...and he shouldn't be. This isn't a subtle movie but a loud, beautiful sonnet to love and how it can make us better when we find it. Adam Sandler is fantastic as an angry, lonely man. And I particularly love Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the sleazy mattress man trying to scam Sandler. A film that makes me feel warm inside

15. Lost in Translation: Another film in which I feel like I'm revisiting old friends. I don't know that Bill Murray has ever been better than he is here, as a beaten-down actor whose passions are fading. Scarlett Johanssen may have gone the movie star route, but here she's adorable as a young newlywed discovering that she doesn't know what she wants from life. The friendship she and Bob form in a Tokyo hotel is beautiful, touching and healing to both of them. I love that this isn't a romance but simply a story of two people forming a deep, healing bond. And I never want to know the words Bob whispers at the end.

16. Back to the Future: Possibly the most tightly-written, finely-tuned examples of high concept comedy. This film is pure joy, with a script that is intelligent and funny and performances by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd that created characters we loved throughout the entire trilogy.

17. Shaun of the Dead: We've had zombie comedies before "Shaun" and after "Shaun." Some have been bad. Some have been good. But none have been as memorable or hilarious as Edgar Wright's slacker-saves-the-day opus, which celebrates Romero's formula while spoofing it. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are the new millenium's great buddy team and, on any given day, I can't tell whether I like this or "Hot Fuzz" more. But Shaun's slacker sensibility gives it a slight edge.

18. Kill Bill: I love the epic of the Bride. I love the exploitation-cinema-on-crack insanity of the bullet-paced, blood-soaked first part and the epic feel of the dialogue-heavy, Western-and-kung-fu-themed concluding volume. Uma Thurman's work as the blood spattered Bride is the best female action work since Ripley escaped the Nostromo. Tarantino holds it all together with giddy glee...if a film projector allowed us to see what was in his brain, this is the film that would emerge. And David Carradine steals the entire affair with his brilliantly-delivered Superman monologue at the end.

19. Groundhog Day: Bill Murray again. And this film grows on me each time I watch it. Funny, brilliantly scripted and acted, it's a comedic musing on the book of Ecclesiasties. It's hilarious and quotable and yet filled with a goodness and joy that make comparisons to "It's a Wonderful Life" surprisingly apt.

20. The Truman Show: I love Peter Weir's film. It's another great Jim Carrey performance in a profound film that asks the deepest questions about how we become the people we are, what effect our settings and environments have on us and whether the human spirit can be stifled and contained. The final 20 minutes of this movie are some of my favorite big screen moments.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.