Maybe I should have done this way back when I started this column. I know some of my illustrious commenters did, and I guess I’m just slow for not catching on until now. But I’ve always felt that you could tell a lot about a person based on their taste in movies, and lets face it, movie lovers love to rank things. It’s what keeps the AFI in business.
Of course, it’s really a dumb thing to do. There are objective standards by which we can separate good movies from bad ones, but once you make that broad distinction it gets pretty subjective. I’ve often had the experience where a movie will connect with me once, sometimes on the first viewing, sometimes the third or fourth, but will bore me ever after (this was my experience with The Truman Show, for instance).
So trying to compose a list of my ten favorite movies (not to be confused with the ten best movies; totally different set of criteria) seems kind of futile, but what the hell. Let’s do it anyway. Certainly six through ten fluctuate depending on what day of the week it is, the relative cloud cover, and the current win-loss record of the Pittsburgh Steelers. One through five has been pretty constant for a while now, so we’ll put that off until tomorrow. Just for the record, it’s Wednesday, there are just a few puffs of cloud in the sky, and- it being the off-season- the Steelers are sitting at .500 with a record of zero and zero.In a nod to David Letterman, we’ll start with number ten.
10) Twelve Monkeys: I put Terry Gilliam in the same category as David Lynch: intensely imaginative and stunning visually, and yet, if you just give them a few million and send them off to make a movie, what they come back with is often unintelligible (much of Fear and Loathing and Brazil falls into this category). If, however, you confine those off-kilter ideas within the narrative constraints of a studio film, more often than not you get something magic, and Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is a perfect example. Based on a short film called La Jettee, it’s a lyrical and haunting tale of time travel and an apocalyptic vision of our future. It got two Oscar nominations, one richly deserved for costume design (the production design is also fantastic), and the other for a brilliantly manic supporting performance by Brad Pitt as a mental patient. His tics and spasms are now practically famous on their own, and while the rest of the cast- Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Christopher Plummer- are adequate, Pitt steals the show (although David Morse is almost his equal in a much smaller role). The film is confusing, the narrative fractured, and it is, at times, difficult to follow. But by the time you get to the end, all the pieces fit together in a way that is totally satisfying and kind of heartbreaking. Kudos to Gilliam and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples (David also wrote the script for Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) for making maybe the only time-travel movie that doesn’t piss me off with logical inconsistencies.
9) The Descent: This is a recent addition to the list. I’ve seen it three times now, and it gets more complex and fascinating each time. This is only accentuated by its being released in such close proximity to The Cave, which has an almost identical logline, bigger stars, twice the budget, and is inferior to Descent in every way. Writer/director Neil Marshall (his werewolf film Dog Soldiers is also worth a look) takes three long-time friends (six are in the script, but only three matter), puts them into some unimaginably difficult circumstances, and watches as they splinter and finally destroy each other. The monsters, which he patiently waits forty-five minutes to introduce, are almost incidental. What matters most to me is the way the story builds to what may be the most morally ambiguous ending in any horror film, and my feelings about it have changed every time I see it. Whenever I’m able to share the film with someone, I always ask the question: does Juno get what she deserves? They will often start out in one position, and as I point out this and that aspect of the script, their perspective changes. There aren’t many films that have spawned such great conversations, and even fewer that are so genuinely entertaining on top of it. In twenty years, I believe this film will be regarded the way we do Romero’s Dawn of the Dead now, and believe me, Marshall is a filmmaker to watch.
8) Unbreakable: Hands down, Shyamalan’s best movie. It is to comic book movies what Unforgiven is to Westerns. It tells a familiar origin story but sets it in the real world, which is to say it has no gamma rays or radioactive spiders, and the hero and villain never even fight. Instead, it’s just a guy who realizes, with some prodding from a wild-haired Samuel L. Jackson (in maybe his last worthwhile performance), that he’s never been sick. Never even been injured. And just maybe, he can’t be hurt at all. But on a more subtle, profound level, it’s about two guys who just don’t know their place in the world. They don’t know how they fit, what their lives mean. And between the two of them, they find it, only in the broad outlines of the comic book world: Willis is the hero, Jackson the villain. The stoic solemnity of Willis’s performance perfectly communicates a man whose life is missing something, and he’s just not sure what it is, but it’s absence is slowly destroying his marriage, his relationship with his son… his life. Jackson’s Elijah character gives him that meaning, and by his very existence, Bruce returns the favor. Unbreakable has as much in common with Spiderman as United 93 does with Airplane!, and yet it’s the most profound, moving comic book film ever made.
7) In the Mouth of Madness: If you love H.P. Lovecraft, then you love In the Mouth of Madness. It’s that simple. Possibly the last decent film by John Carpenter, from a script by former New Line honcho Michael de Luca, of all people, the film follows Sam Neil as insurance investigator John Trent, trying to locate missing horror author Sutter Cane (ring any bells?). Trent eventually finds him in a fictional town of Cane’s own invention, and soon realizes he’s trapped inside the work of a man who intends to use his unprecedented popularity as an author to transform the people of the world into monsters. Cane is a thinly veiled homage to Lovecraft, and the film contains numerous clever references to the author (the local motel, for instance, is Pickman’s Motel, which sounds suspiciously like Lovecraft’s story “Pickman’s Model”). But more than that, the movie is about our perception of reality and it’s fragility, and the ending does a brilliant reversal that brings to movie into… well, our reality. Neil is great, as are John Glover, Bernie Casey, and Chalrton Heston in smaller parts. But Julie Carmen and Jurgen Prochnow (as Cane) are pretty terrible, and Carpenter’s hand gets a little heavy in the third act. Still, this might be the best horror film no one’s ever heard of, and whenever I give it to someone, I envy their getting see it for the first time.
6) Ju-On: Quite frankly, the scariest film I have ever seen. Hands down, no questions asked. I heard about it and got it off ebay without knowing anything about it. Watched it by myself one night, lights off, ready for something creepy. After the first chapter, I turned the lights back on. After the second to last chapter, I almost turned the movie off. Writer/director Takashi Shimitzu fixes a hundred problems with haunted house movies in one broad narrative stroke: the ghosts can follow you out of the house! It seems so simple, and yet it completely eliminates all the motivational problems of isolating characters in a place that’s obviously haunted (you’ll notice the big solution in Poltergeist, for instance, is the family getting a motel room; in Shimitzu’s world, they could get a hotel on the moon and the ghost would still get them). The story is weak on characters, true, but the fractured narrative keeps you interested by leaving you unsure of your chronological footing in each chapter (a little like Memento, a film that often finds itself on this list, just not today), and delivers the scares in a steady escalation. It really is hard to communicate what a revelation it is for Shimitzu to solve the problem of isolation by marrying the haunted house film with, essentially, a curse movie. It leaves him free to put the ghosts anywhere. In your car. In a restaurant. Even in your bed. Creeps me out just thinking about it.
There you have it, folks. The bottom five of my top ten favorite movies as of today. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these movies, agree or disagree, and feel free to throw out your own favorites.
Tomorrow, (drum roll, please) the top five. It’s a lot less horror-heavy, I promise. See you then.