I really can’t name five favorite movies (there are too many good ones to narrow down to 500, much less five), but I’ll take a swing at five I’ve found to be the most affecting in recent viewing. Here are five films that struck me for their beauty and emotional range. Film makes me very enthusiastic, so slap me upside the head if I start babbling.
Scenes from Marriage. I’m glad I never tried to watch this movie when I was younger. But now that I’m plunging ungracefully into middle-age and am the veteran of one failed marriage and struggling to keep my second afloat, this film hit me on a gut level. It comes in a great three-disk set that has the 3-hour American theatrical release and the full 6-hour Swedish television miniseries. The story follows a middle-class couple through various stages of damage, dissolution, and reconciliation. It is filmed as close-up views of conversations between two people (usually the couple, although others are sparingly brought in to advance the story). If your film experience requires motion, this will not be a good choice for you. It’s slow, meditative, and thoughtful, with highly crafted dialogue that stands up to multiple views, with incredible performances by all actors in the small cast. I watched the 3-hour version and found myself so attached to it that I re-reserved it from the library and viewed the full version. [Swedish with subtitles].
Three Colors trilogy (Blue, White, Red). This is a trilogy of movies made by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski to celebrate the bicentennial of the French revolution. The colors are those of the French flag, representing liberty, equality, fraternity. Each film deals ironically with its color coded theme, although never directly. Liberty deals with a woman exploring the freedom of being widowed, setting herself free from the chains of deceit in her late marriage. Equality, the only comedic entry in the series, tells about a man who goes to extreme lengths to repossess his wife, who has rejected him. Fraternity explores the boundaries and responsibilities of fraternal existence, through the eyes of a woman who befriends a man who obsessively spies on his neighbors. Kieslowski is a particularly visual director, and he delightfully explores the color theme in the palette of each film (watch them on a large, widescreen TV, if you are able). His protagonists are played by breathtakingly beautiful actresses (Juliet Binoche, Julie Delpy, and Irene Jacob), and Kieslowski’s camera loves them passionately, much like Hitchcock’s treatment of Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Blue is sad, but liberating. White is absurdly humorous, with a darkly satisfying conclusion. Red is also rather gloomy, but ends on a note of hope. [French with subtitles]
The Decalogue. I became interested in this series after watching the director’s Three Colors trilogy. This is a series of ten stories, each loosely, sometimes only tangentially, related to one of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The connection to the biblical Decalogue is rather tenuous; in some episodes, I wasn’t able to guess the commandment from the story, and all of the episodes include thoughtful connections to several commandments besides the one it is supposedly based on. The production values are not fantastic--the use of natural lighting makes everything appear rather drab--but the filmmakers accomplished a great deal with minimal resources.
This is “talkie” cinema. Not much in the way of action. There is violence, but it’s emotional violence; the action is emotional action. Kieslowski’s scripts never allow for easy answers, and he usually puts his characters into situations with difficult choices, often heartbreaking choices. As with Three Colors, there’s not much comedy in these stories, and any humor is of the black variety. I guarantee that each one of the ten episodes will give you plenty of food for thought for days to come.
Warning: If you are looking for a religious film, or have an aversion to the same, this series isn’t for you. [Polish with subtitles]
Wings of Desire. One could summarize this one by saying it is a movie about angels in Berlin, but that would be too simple. It’s really beautiful, but sad, meditation on helplessness and alienation and sorrow and loneliness and death and love, that shows the life of angels in a large city, focusing on two angels who are friends. The life [or afterlife!] of angels is not the pleasant fantasy of Sunday school children, but rather a lonely existence, devoid of touch, wandering from mortal to mortal, eavesdropping on their deepest thoughts. And, unlike the guardian angels of fairytales, these angels may have no influence on the humans they monitor. It one particularly heartbreaking scene, an angel is next to a fellow sitting at the top of a tall building. He hears the thoughts of man thinking about why he no longer wants to live. The angel reaches out and gently touches him. The man turns for a moment as though he senses the presence next to him, and then pushes himself off the edge. The rest of the film follows one of the angels in his quest to become mortal and experience human love. Even though there is a happy ending, it’s not what I would categorize a feel-good movie; my eyes were burning during several scenes. Most of the film is in gorgeous black and white, except for those scenes that take place from human perspective. The dialog is in German, except for scenes with Peter Falk (playing himself in an impressively honest performance) and the singing of Nick Cave in a really cool gothic nightclub.
Picnic at Hanging Rock. I thought I should throw an English language movie in here for good measure, just so you don’t think I’m the kind of foreign movie snob! This Australian film is based on a work of fiction, but presented as though the events really happened. In late Victorian times, at the turn of the century, three girls and an instructor from a girls’ boarding school disappear during a fieldtrip to a local landmark. The movie follows the preparation for the field trip, the disappearance, and the subsequent searches. The mood moves from ethereal, idyllic bliss through anxiety and fear, and on through to frustration and grief. Particularly impressive is the way the school girls and their daily lives are presented, so carefree and happy. At one point early in the picture, a teacher says that one of the girls (one of the party who disappear) looks like a Botticelli angel, and she really does.
Least Favorite: Sometimes I think I’m one of the only males in my demographic (white, suburban, midwestern, early 40s) who cannot quote from Stripes and Caddyshack. I’ve got no axe to grind about these movies and their ilk, but I didn’t laugh. If a movie is made purely as a medium for delivering yuks, and it doesn’t, there’s really nothing left to take pleasure from. I won’t say that these movies are stupid (that’s really the point, isn’t it?) or that they suck (based on the gross receipts, they delivered to their audiences), but they didn’t float my boat. Hollywood cannot spit out movies like A Fish Called Wanda on the assembly line—that’s why a really good comedy is such a treat.
Beyond that, I generally dislike two kinds of movies, those that pander to an audience’s expectations and those that tell you how to feel. I don’t need to enumerate examples of the former category—just take 70-80% of the films at your local multiplex. For the latter, I point to Spielberg as one example. As close as he gets to making a great film on occasion, he has the tendency to manipulate emotions, to feed the proper feelings to the watcher like a mother bird predigests food and spews it into her pleading babies’ mouths (examples: the final scene in Israel in Shindler’s List and the cemetery scene in Saving Private Ryan). Leaving Spielberg aside, I find most feel-good movies offensive. Maybe I’m just a grump, but I think that stories where someone triumphantly overcomes adversity against all odd through tenacity and will-power promote a rather deluded view of life on this mortal coil.