Whenever I create social network profiles or fill out surveys, I always come up against that hardest of questions: what’s your favorite movie? For me, as for many, this question is simply too difficult to answer. Sometimes, when I should be doing something productive, I daydream about strategic approaches to answering this question. The problem I often run into is that making such a list doesn’t actually teach me or anyone else much about me. As a child of the 80s and 90s, my preferences resemble most of my generation; Lucas and Spielberg dominate my imagination, and maybe Hitchcock if I’m feeling snooty and arty.
Today I came up with a simple approach that yielded interesting results. I just listed the movies that I never don’t want to watch, the movies that at any time of day and any time of year I would drop what I’m doing to watch, and not only not regret it, but also not grow any more weary of the movie. I came up with 3 easily, then 5, then 10. As I made my list, a few more criteria became necessary. First, I realized that there are some movies that I’m always up for watching, but don’t actually consider good movies (Case in point: She’s The Man. For some reason, I’m always game for that flick). Second, there are a host of movies, mostly holiday themed, that only work at certain times of year (sadly, Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie in my book, so no, it won’t be on my list, even though I LOVE it). Third, and I didn’t expect this, I kept wanting to put TV episodes on my list (What’s better, Return of the Jedi, or the last episode of Battlestar season 3?) I came to the realization that I may very well like TV more than film, which is a weird realization. So I banned TV from the list as well.
Here, then, are my ten favorite films:
10. Jurassic Park: I decided to love Jurassic Park before I ever watched it. In 1994, my eleven-year-old self got wind of a movie that sounded like heaven-on-screen due to two all important words: Spielberg. Dinosaurs. I longed to see it in the theatre, but wasn’t allowed to. I drooled over the VHS at K-Mart, so much so that my dad bought it. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and probably will watch it dozens more times with my kids. It’s not Spielberg’s best, but… dinosaurs! DINOSAURS!! Also, the first scene of this movie taught me something about filmmaking at an early age, namely that physical logsitics can be sacrificed for the sake of mood and expression. Go watch that first scene with Robert Muldoon, the cage, and the raptor again. His body positioning from shot to shot makes little sense. It doesn’t matter. Spielberg’s already got us eating out of his hand.
9. Hot Fuzz: Many might say Shaun of the Dead, but I think Hot Fuzz is Edgar Wright’s best film to date. This is the only R-rated movie on the list, and its juvenile humor and potty-mouth are part of its appeal. A friend once told me this might be the best action movie he’s ever seen, which is weird, because it’s also a dedicated screwball comedy. But it’s a comedy for action film lovers, of which I am one, and it manages to both lampoon and outdo most action tropes of the last 30 years. Another thing I love about this film is that it gets more funny the more films I watch. I’ve been into Cantonese-language cop thrillers lately, and have been surprised at how much Hot Fuzz puts itself in dialogue with these Chinese films. Though Apatow has dominated the english-language comedy scene for nearly the last decade, I think Edgar Wright has made funnier and better edited films; Wright’s quick, sequential cuts summarizing daily routines are especially memorable, and have seeped into the common language and logic of both British and American filmmaking.
8.Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Most agree that this is the best of the HP films. Alfonso Curon really nails the weird beauty of the climactic scenes, one of which, involving a silver stag, still brings tears to my eyes. Not the most original or “important” film on this list, but it’s a well wrought ride from Macbeth canticle to werewolf howl. And do the cut scenes involving the whomping willow remind anyone else of Return of the Jedi scenes with the frog creature outside Jabba’s palace?
7. King Kong: When it comes to Peter Jackson films, I prefer King Kong to LOTR. I want to watch King Kong on a weekly basis, at least. The first 2 hours contain some of the most downright fun I’ve ever had in a movie. Jack Black is gleefully over the top, soft focus was invented for Naomi Watts face, and James Newton Howard’s score is pure and perfect melodrama. Yes, the last hour lags, and no, I don’t like the ice skating scene either. This is the only movie on my list that I don’t enjoy pretty much every minute of. But for its dinosaur scenes alone, (which rival and sometimes top Jurassic Park) it deserves to be on this list.
6. Ratatouille: Other Pixar flicks are more timely (Wall-E) or more touching (Toy Story 3), but Ratatouille is a serious meditation on art and criticism, and for that I love it. The critic is a fascinating character, and I still remember his speech about negative reviews whenever I sit down to write my own. When I’m sick on the couch, I often have a hard time deciding between Ratatouille and King Kong as my ultimate comfort movie.
5. Serenity: I watched Serenity before I’d ever heard of Firefly, or of that Joss Whedon guy. I found it to be an enthralling, serious, inspiring, funny, thoughtful and well shot film (Mal’s backlit “I aim to misbehave” speech convinced me of the well-shot part). Then I watched all of Whedon’s other stuff, and realized I shouldn’t have been surprised. But now when I return to Serenity, it hasn’t lost any of its excellence; it’s still Joss’s best film, way better than Avengers (which I liked a lot). On my last watch, I noticed the stirring score for the first time. How had I missed it? One early review of Serenity had it right: Watching Serenity on the big screen is the closest kids these days will get to the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time back in ’77. But Serenity is a better film than Star Wars. There. I said it.
4. Beauty and the Beast : Pixar has Toy Story, Ratatouille and Wall-E, but Beauty and the Beast is the best American animated film ever made (notice I said American. If I had better taste, Miyazaki would dominate this list. Come to think of it, why is Spirited Away not on here?). What’s there left to say about Beauty and the Beast? Most of us have it memorized and still can’t get enough of it. I even like the new, extended version with the “Human Again” song, which I find to be quite Patristic in its anthropology even if it’s middling in its composition. I often want to watch this movie on my birthday. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it reminds me how much I love being alive, finding I can change, and, even, learning I was wrong.
3. As You Like It: I had to slip Shakespeare onto this list, and what better play (and adaptation) than this one? Olivier invented the modern Shakespeare film, and Branagh took it to surprising, hubristic heights in Henry V and the barely bearable Hamlet, but settled into a lyrical groove with As You Like It. It’s hard to praise As You Like It without just gushing about the Bard himself, but I think this film as a film is just really well put together. Bryce Dallas Howard is playful and arresting, Kevin Kline and Brian Blessed are good as ever, and the delicacy of editing and pastoral patience and attentiveness of the cinematography are unparalleled in any other Shakespeare film. Also, Branagh puts some of the opening credits in haiku form, which is, I think, a first.
2. Seven Samurai: From time to time this has actually been called the greatest film ever made, so I’m proud to say I love it (as opposed to Citizen Cane, Late Spring, and Army of Shadows, three “great films” I’d love to love, but, in fact, only very highly respect). Seven Samurai, like Beauty and the Beast, makes me glad to be alive, and illustrates in its breadth of characters and its depth of characterization the spectrum of human emotion, morality, and ideals. Kurosawa is a grand humanist, perhaps the grandest to ever make films, and Seven Samurai is his grandest vision, an epic that contains within it true tragedy, high comedy, light lyric, and everything in between…. oh, did I also mention it has swordfights? It has TONS of swordfights. That’s really the reason I like it.
1. The Empire Strikes Back: I was tempted to put Seven Samurai at the top of this list, and even for a moment considered Jurassic Park. But it has to be Empire. Not A New Hope, which gets by more on youthful enthusiasm than quality, and not Return of the Jedi, which is just a little decadent compared the first two films. No, my favorite film, and the most beloved sci-fi film (if not the best) of all time, is Empire. Go watch it again. Listen to the dialogue spark and snap. Revel in the elaborate sets. Remember that you’re not supposed to know who Vader is yet, and forget you’ve seen yoda wield a lightsaber in Clones and Sith. Empire is an almost perfect adventure, despite its being the middle of a trilogy, despite the fact that its director, Irving Kishner, didn’t go on to do much else. He didn’t need to do much else. He made The Empire Strikes Back. My favorite movie. And probably yours.