My Favorite Films of All Time: 10 Recommendations from Exhuming Cinema’s Author

 


Each person who loves movies has their own definition of cinema and their own reasons why they love it, and mine wouldn’t vary much from the rest of the people who fell in love with film: I am simply entranced. Film is magic on the screen and I am fallen prey, I love movies with all my soul, and in this piece, I will be talking about the ten films that have impacted me the most in my life. Some of these I’ve seen dozens of times, and some I’ve only seen once or twice, but each one of them has deeply touched me and its images and sounds have remained with me ever since the credits rolled, an aftertaste that I can’t- and would never want to wash off.

 

10- La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954)

 


As I noted down the films to write about in this article, I realized it couldn’t begin any stronger as Fellini’s La Strada was number 10. This film is the moment Fellini became Fellini. Moving away from his neorealist roots, this film saw the legendary director sort of laying the foundation of the surrealist and fantastical worlds that he’ll be diving into later in his career, so La Strada is a bit of a mix of both “extremes”, a film that is based on the harsh realities of post-war Italy, but one that comes to terms with it through innocent imagination and dreamy overtones, a film stuck between the earth and the skies.

La Strada’s story is about two characters: Zampano, who is a travelling circus performer, and whose assistant, Rosa, had died, and Gelsomina, Rosa’s sister, who is bought off her poor mother to replace her sister and travel around with him as he goes from town to town, doing his act. Zampano, a towering figure of a man with a personality as rough as his looks, earns a living by doing an act where he ties an iron chain around him and breaks it simply by expanding his chest, and Gelsomina’s job is to introduce him to audiences and pass around the hat collecting tips. Her willingness to learn and please, and enjoyment of travelling around Italy are challenged by his brutal and cruel nature, something that is constantly complicated as the story progresses.

 

9- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

 


I’ve written about this film so much that I’m sure the words now will flow naturally as I try to talk about how much I love it. Fear Eats the Soul begins with the words “happiness is not always fun”, and proceeds to lay on screen one of the greatest melodramas of cinematic history, filled to the brim with relevant and contemporary issues as well as immortal struggles and pains of the soul, Fassbinder’s magnus opus is an opera of the regular man, where emotions continuously sway back and forth until its brutal raw finish.

Fear Eats the Soul is a film that can be read on multiple levels and none of the readings would be correct or false, for this multi-layered masterpiece is like a large canvas, you cannot see the whole picture if you are standing too close. The idea that it is a film dealing with the remains of Nazi mentality in Germany long after the fall of The Third Reich, and the racism and discrimination and false sense of superiority that plague it, is not exactly wrong, because the film does deal with these themes beautifully and potently but is has so much more to offer.

While exploring these major themes, it also finds a way to implement a tale of unconditional, forbidden love defying all societal rules and norms and offering its participants shelter against the howling wind that is the unjustified hatred of the outside world. Fassbinder fights to earn sympathy for the couple in the first half of the film, only to twist and distort their fate in the second half, changing their relationship from one of infinite beauty and tenderness to one of contempt and benefit, and in a way, reducing the hate one might have had for society in the first half of the film, which is in itself, weirdly enough, a hopeful note, saying that maybe people’s nature doesn’t change right away, but if their actions do, well that’s a start.

 

8- Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

 


Throughout the years, film noir has remained my absolute favorite genre. These 40’s and 50’s crime stories that held generous amounts of glamour and witty one-liners hooked me since I first saw The Maltese Falcon for the first time ages ago, and ever since then, I’ve seen an ungodly amount of these films to sate a need for noir that only seems to grow bigger. While most noir films’ idea of crime usually involves a gun, a private detective and a generous amount of shooting, Sweet Smell of Success casts a shadowy light on more subtle yet deadly crimes, wrongdoings stimulated by greed and ambition, so deeply imprinted in their protagonists’ psyches that they seem a part of human nature, if not human nature itself. 

Sweet Smell of Success tells the story of Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis), a press agent under the complete power and control of columnist J. J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster), and as the former fails to complete a job for his boss, he becomes more and more indebted to him, surrendering more of his person to the ever-growing power and influence of J. J. The job is to interrupt a relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and a guitar player in a jazz band, something the boss wants to do stealthily and without his sister’s knowledge to retain her love and respect, and something he does through his subject, Sidney Falco. As the job gets more and more complicated, and as certain unwelcome parties enter the play, we are treated to a thorough character study of both men, who are in the end, more similar than different.


7- The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

 


Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel by the same name may be the calmest thriller you’ll ever see; as it toys with your nerves endlessly, you’ll completely surrender yourself to the arbitrariness of a classic Chandler story with all of it confusing, spiraling incidents because this is the only film adaption of one of his stories that can ever hope to be called soothing. By the time of Raymond’s death in 1959, The Long Goodbye was one of two novels of his still not adapted into film (save for a television production with Dick Powell in 1954), and that perhaps worked out for the best; The Long Goodbye is not Chandler’s best and doesn’t defer much from his other work, and an adaptation at the height of the classic film noir period would have just resulted in yet another detective story, but the fact that it survived until the 1970s gave birth to one of the most unique renditions of Philip Marlowe on the silver screen: glamorous, almost soothing but naturally nerve-wracking.

 

The Long Goodbye puts Elliot Gould in the shoes of the classic private detective, Philip Marlowe, as he once again gets dragged into a spiraling web of crime and conspiracies, this time triggered by a suspicious favor to a friend that he willingly accepts before suffering its unforeseen consequences, from a couple of rough nights at the police station, death threats from a crime overlord, and even losing his cat! Robert Altman moved the story, which was originally set in the 1940s, to 70s Hollywood, thus enabling himself to both modernize the tale and give it more contemporary relevance and depth, with a subtle critique to a society that resembles a jungle of “kill or be killed” more than a human community, with a complete disregard to any notions of companionship or friendship.

 

6- Citizen Kane (Orson Wells, 1941)

 


Every top 10 films list has Citizen Kane in it, usually at the very top, and mine is no different. Often described as the greatest film ever made, each viewing of Citizen Kane brings me closer to admitting that it is. It is perfect in every aspect and what it did eighty years ago remains revolutionary today. Its story unfolds more details every time you see it, its main character, Kane, is as mysterious and ambiguous as he is a powerful screen presence with strong ideals, and its camera work did for cinema what discovering fire did for mankind. Citizen Kane is simply perfection.

 

5- All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)

 


Hollywood can lay claim to very few genres as truly belonging to the American tradition, but the western and the musical are truly theirs. Musicals were one of the most successful genres in Hollywood history, reaching a peak in the 40’s and 50’s with directors like Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli and Howard Hawks laying out one amazing picture after another. But while in the early years of the genre, it was merely a pure form of entertainment, generally involving one or more stars in some romantic or comedic setting, come the 1940’s, the genre started to evolve and include more serious, and often dark, themes. After a couple of decades where the genre was thought to be almost dead, Bob Fosse’s 1979 All That Jazz, a choreographed autobiography took the musical and crafted a masterpiece out of it. Bob Fosse’s portrayal of a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, drug addict of a choreographer is both dark and groovy. With amazing set pieces, exquisite camera movements, a nonchalance towards the fourth wall, incredible and serious music, and a lead performance by Roy Scheider that leaves your jaw on the floor, All That Jazz is truly one of the greatest films ever made.

 

4- The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

 


Film Noir is notorious for its morally ambiguous protagonists, characters that not only accept cynicism as a chief trait but embrace it wholly. It is their entire existence, their meaning, and their raison d'être. It is them. That character in The Third Man is introduced just as the film opens. Filmmaker Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker take us through its streets, its sleazy cafes, its low reputed nightclubs, and its ruins. That individual here is the city of Vienna itself, a setting-character with a morality as ambiguous as that of famous noir icons such as Sam Spade or Walter Neff, and a dark mysterious aura that brings it to life and gives it a real sense of danger. The Vienna of Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece is battered and exhausted, in its moonlit streets reside the scum of society and what remains of the law is too scattered to protect the other half of its population. This post-war Vienna does not provide warmth and hospitality even to its inhabitants, let alone mere strangers; but nonetheless, pulp author Holly Martins does enter it, and his laws and hers must clash.

The Third Man is essentially an exploration of an expression we often hear but never contemplate, “kill or be killed.” Its mysterious third man takes advantage of the city’s hectic state and puts a major portion of its population in danger for personal benefit. He compares his victims to dots seen from the sky. Irrelevant, insignificant and inconsequential. The film does not attempt to correct him, it only punishes him. At the end of the whole ordeal, he does not repent, he does not change morally, but he is prey instead of predator. As his fingers reach for the hope of rescue and a twisted idea of light, justice brings him back down. Justice here is entirely one single character’s perspective, others have different notions of it, and the film has none.

 

3- Eight and a Half (Federico Fellini, 1963)

 


Federico Fellini’s Eight and a Half has been ranking very highly in lists of most important films of all time since its release in 1963. For decades, critics have praised it for its originality, for its brilliant cinematography and perceptive portrayal of the art life. What is equally if not more famous that the film itself, however, is its opening sequence. The first of many dream sequences used throughout the course of the film, the first couple of minutes of 8 1⁄2 , in their own surreal and fantastic way, define the entirety of the film, set its tone and the mode of narrative it utilizes. Jumping from the mundane to the fantastic, like evaporating out of one’s car in traffic to float in the air only to be pulled down to the ground again, that is what Eight and a Half uses to tell its story. It is experimental, unorthodox, and at certain segments, plain bizarre, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

2- The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)

 


“Stay sane inside insanity!” is a line that perfectly describes the cultural phenomenon that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Originally written by Richard O’Brien as a play, and later adapted into the big screen by director Jim Sharman, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, first released forty-four years ago, still spawns massive troops of faithful followers on a weekly basis, troops that know the movie by line, memorize the fan-made counter point dialogue and dress up as the characters in delicately made costumes. But one might hear that a movie about a mad transsexual scientist who later turns out to be an alien from a galaxy called Transylvania is the longest-running theatrical release in film history and blamelessly wonder why.

It would be nearly impossible for me to say anything bad about The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ve seen it dozens of times, I know it by line, I listen to its memorable soundtrack on the way to school, I quote obscure lines from it in random conversations and receive weird reactions. But what is humbling and at the same time amazing about the whole experience is knowing that there are millions of fans out there who are just as passionate about this film as I am.

 

1- Love Steams (John Cassavetes, 1984)

 


“This picture, this picture; I don’t give a fuck what anybody says. If you don’t have time to see it, don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t. If it doesn’t give you an answer, fuck you. I didn’t make it for you anyways.” Those were the Cassavetes’ words on the film, and that in my opinion, is the highest and most respectable form of filmmaking and art in general, the uncompromisingly personal. People often say that the best films are the ones you lose yourself completely in, but for me, no matter what I’m watching, I’m aware that it is a film; Love Streams comes the closest to blinding the boundary between reality and fiction. It not only gave me an answer, it gave me multiple; through its rich dialogue and honest depictions, every revisit reveals a new layer, and consequently, a new answer.

The story is simple: two broken siblings, a boozing writer by the name of Robert Harmon and an overly-loving divorced mother by the name of Sarah Lawson, played by John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, find comfort in each other’s company after their lives take a bad turn; the way the story plays, however, is anything but simple. An intense character study of both protagonists that aims to answer a million questions and answers very few, Love Streams questions identity, relationships, independence, and of course most importantly, love. What does it mean to love? Does it stop? When is it too much? Is it necessary? There’s a making-of documentary on the film called “I’m Almost Not Crazy Now – John Cassavetes, The Man and His Work” in which he says, “I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all the stuff in that war, in that word-polemic and film-polemic of what life is. And the rest of the stuff doesn’t really interest me. It may interest other people, but I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it.” That’s Love Streams.


Comments

  1. Interesting list! But I can’t help wondering why you would have spelt out 8 1/2 in words. I have never seen it spelt this way before, and it’s certainly not the way Fellini spelt it in the title of the film.

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