Despite the endless middle schoolness of keeping favourites, for ten years now I have kept a list of films on a yellow scrap of paper by my desk.
I don't believe in the ranking of films any more than the ranking of one's children, of excitement over amazement, the fall or spring. The series of self-congratulatory embraces that the film industry gives itself on an annual basis confuses its own work for that of an athlete . Storytelling is not competitive. It's light and sound.
And yet here's a list. Unordered, inconsistent, uncomprehensive, mine. That was its disclaimer.
I hope this finds you with the right reasons: sharing that which pleased me at some point in my life, that which I believe worth your precious time .
There is little that is snotty or arch or here simply to make me look clever. Much of the commonplace. Much that you've been meaning to see already. In which case, as the apostate said to the royal governor, I'd be honoured to give you a push.
 Sad, perhaps, as when a handsome star has the old face turned and pulled and twisted until it has no memory of the marble block people lined up to stare at, 10 foot tall, what we look like in dreams, what we think we look like after a punishing amount of alcohol.
 Few films here are much longer than an episode of TV. So try that excuse elsewhere.
Ur-village comedy. Perfect in tone and enthusiasm and wonderment.
Better than Carver and Altman on their own, a true ensemble. The scene when they’re drunk in the hot tub, painted up like clowns, bright day after night in Los Angeles.
A Fish Called Wanda
Five unforgettable characters, precision heist, unparalleled dialogue and delivery.
How we forgive ourselves quietly and move forwards. Increasingly, as I age, a comfort as much as an example.
Monsieur Hulot’s Vacation
The Illusionist (dir. Chomet)
Impossible to choose just one. The right mood to hold both in life and film.
Burden of Dreams
The scene where Herzog vents at the jungle is worth the whole movie. Pleasingly, the rest of the film is nearly as good at describing the pact we must keep with our dreams. Dutybound.
A recent Wiseman. On passionate people who see closely. A lesson: always film the passionate (if you cannot become one yourself).
Maybe my favourite Kubrick. The side-effects of ambition.
All the wit and spark of the past 30 years of British comedy, but with unnecessarily impressive (tho appreciated) visual sense. What I hope movies become. So much finer than it ever needed to be.
The Browning Version
Weep. Regret. A life. Living.
Withnail & I
Ceaselessly funny even on a fifteenth viewing. Robinson fought to keep his film original. Comedy found in character, wides, and disintegrating sets. Supposedly the real flat only had one lightbulb that they carried like a prize pear from room to room.
The Deerhunter (first hour)
Maybe the best day committed to film. The second half can’t keep pace.
The scene at the rollerrink alone. Weep. Regret. A life. Living.
Les quatres cents coups
The scene at the rollerwheel alone.
Both romantic and jaded. Impressive for young people — tho I've not seen this since that adjective described me.
Thunderbolt & Lightfoot
Great male friendship film. Begins light and then discovers weight over time.
Tough to pick one from Malle's work. The scene where Sarandon cleans the smell of fish off herself with lemons. A lesson: film faded dreams.
Twin Peaks (S1-3 plus Fire Walks With Me)
Stuffed with tone shifts, ideas, affection, ludicrously overblown romance, existential horror, Americana, coffee, everything I love. Never once underestimates the audience, a kind of faith we're a bit dry on these days.
Life is Sweet
Nuts in May
It’s easy to find drama in sadness; Leigh can work so much out of the happier emotions in life. They are complex too.
How can a film show so much and still feel mysterious? A lesson.
Yes, this is how the world is. Brazil was one of my first great surprises. Doubtless in need of editing. But what could you cut?
Back to the Future 2
Stellar example of 80s blockbuster filmmaking.
Far more interesting than people gave it credit for. What is our relationship to those who came before us and those who will follow?
A New Leaf
Elaine May’s best. Walter Matthau kills me in this movie. ‘Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye’ and 'Madam, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time, but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered.'
The Lady Eve
Pratfalls work best with serious actors.
How to Steal a Million
The scene in the broom closet is the very definition of unity in space and time.
The Awful Truth
Cary Grant discovers Cary Grant here. Is as excited by the find as we are. Dunne is wonderful. They never seem to be acting. Like watching a bird learn to fly.
La Grande Illusion
Humanist film’s mountain source.
How could you not?
Yes, you need to have seen 1. But 2 explores fading men in a rising city and how friendships and wants evolve over time. It’s about getting less. How to lump it.
The world can grind you down. To see a son lose faith in his world and father...
Apocalypse Now Redux
The missing scenes make the film. Willard sees the French who went before him. No warning can stop him. He and Kurtz are destined to grapple in destruction.
What’s Opera, Doc?
Greatest Looney Tune (saying much). Inventive in every way, probably responsible for quite a lot of American affection for classical music.
A heist with added dimension. 2010s blockbuster filmmaking’s cleverest film.
Cinema’s finest romance. Not much duty in films these days.
A Clockwork Orange
Unforgettable in every way. One can see why these films create obsessives. The images are held for a personal length of time.
Days of Being Wild
So much faded promise, of WKW, HK cinema, and the characters within. Never as good. Same perhaps for my hometown.
As good as people say. The plotting, the scope, the bastards that run away with it all.
The original rogue villagers film. See Local Hero.
My favourite Alan Clarke, who is one of my favourite filmmakers.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Mindmeld between star, script, director, and moment. Top 10. The daylight is especially bright in it.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC version)
Every character is found to the smallest detail.
The 39 Steps
JD Salinger watched this 400 times. Frank Bascombe's life unraveled to it. I’m catching up.
The Draughtsman’s Contract
One of many enjoyable Greenaway films, but his strongest perhaps for the story and characters matching the director’s own temperament and voice. (If you like the collector in Greenaway, Drowning By Numbers is your bet.)
Speaks in images. The film understand a world that faded in the filming. The premonitions pulse out from the screen.
Aguirre der Zorn Gottes
Kinski covered in monkeys. To be that angry and dying. You know how cops wave you past accidents with the phrase 'there's nothing to see here'? A lot to see here.
The American Friend
How the modern world works: ducking into and out of languages, the way we forget and are reminded of the shorness of our time, how friends can help.
Carnival of Souls
Deeply unsettling. The offsync sound, the pale men, the organ. Lynch must be a fan.
Still underrated. The why of it.
Zero en conduite
Nothing ever so beautiful as when the film breaks into slow motion.
No Persona, no Lynch. Still impressed Bergman teased a story from this, and that the mystery endures (at least in my head).
Pierrot le fou
Favourite Godard. Hi-key colour, amour fou, the play in it.
The entire world could love this. Universal storytelling at its best. Recently rewatched it with an audience of children in absolute hysterics.
Remains as the highwater mark for existential horror. The need to know.
The Last Unicorn
Perhaps a guilty pleasure. The voice acting was great. It affirms my belief that kids actually want sadness too.
Affirms my belief that adults want mysteries, not solutions. Better questions, not simple answers.
Days of Heaven
You can’t build anything.
Hannah & Her Sisters
Last Tango in Paris
I like these in ways that are divorced from their creation. Are they romances or films about selfishness? (Are those antithetical?) Brando destroys himself in the film.
Once Upon a Time in the West
More great visual filmmaking. If the first scene doesn't grab you, skip. If it does, watch and rewatch and rewatch, the bigger the screen the better.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Pure joy. Always what made the films spark, Jones is at his most reluctant here.
Some of the finest satire ever baked onto film. I don’t think of this purely as a Kubrick film, but equally Terry Southern-y.
Sic transit gloria.
This is Spinal Tap
Invented a genre (mockumentary) and remains its masterwork. I can think of no other film with that honour.
Must have been shockingly new when it came out. Under-seen.
‘He hates these cans!’ The best in smart people being silly (although the Pythons provide good competition).
Seriously good. Visually assertive and full of confident style. Mann and Bigelow understand how style and image make a thriller.
In the Mood for Love
They came out in the same year. I prefer Yi Yi — something of the generations in it — but there is a common cause: it’s tough to put one’s finger on love.
Jules et Jim
Close to putting a finger on love. Time pulls things apart; passion too.
Greatest American romance of the past 30 years. How people can love each other truly and without diluting themselves in the way the country and life intends. Notably unlike a marriage comedy, it does not delay the challenges of a real romance beyond the credits.
There Will Be Blood
An example of how a movie can thrive as little more than a collection of scenes, provided those scenes are stuffed with force like rivers of oil pressing up against hard rock.
Modern problems. Fascinatingly even-handed. A lesson (unlearned) for American filmmakers on where drama might lie (not always in overcoming).
No Country for Old Men
Coens’ best, maybe the best Western? Whether one lives or dies or gets rich is pure chance. But if you set foot in the world of evil, you will not return on your own terms. That world has its own rules.
Best obnoxio comedy. Also, quite a good caper. This is the same Michael Ritchie responsible for The Candidate. Chevy at the peak of his considerable powers.
Manchester By the Sea
Devastating. Does not insult the audience. Casey Affleck’s performance, like a wounded bird…
Barrelingly brutal. Cronenberg manages to make violence felt. Impressive, given that the history of film is one of pushing that tide out.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Those who claim to dislike this film are either lying or joyless.
Can't Get You Out of My Head
A new form in documentary (or a return to Grin Without a Cat Marker). Curtis is onto a new visual language that is a little less deceptive.
The Silence of the Lambs
So many great closeups, so many filmmaking lessons. One could study this for a lifetime. Look at their eyes.
Symphonic. One that I would never want to solve. A mystery, as with love. Keep things unsaid.
After Life (dir. Kore-eda)
Humanism in the afterlife. Somehow in the tradition of Renoir.
The Philadelphia Story
Best screwball? Fascinating third act and duel.
Paul Newman is full of force here. The world isn’t fair and that can make you mean as spit.
Paul Newman is full of force here. The world might not be fair, but we get on.
The Last Picture Show
Can’t remember why I like this so much. Must rewatch. A lot of McMurtry here.
Terms of Endearment
No one is perfect but these are strong women. MacLaine's performance, self-described as that of an old smoothie, is my favourite in all cinema.
The Grapes of Wrath
The rare American film with a political stripe. A call to arms or, more accurately, to care for our fellow man. Should be required viewing. Especially in Congress.
Great comedy because it’s grown out of characters. No clear goodies here. But great affection. (Personally, I don’t understand why she doesn’t go with Hurt. Then again, I’m not particularly moral.)
The Third Man
A murky new world post-war. The sewer is both set and setting.
The Last Goodbye
A favourite noir. Shambolic 70s is a better fit for the shamus than world-weary 40s. A faithless decade and Marlowe felt at home in it as much as a man out of time can be.
Something new. There’s a lot to dislike about the film (visions?) but it took film further.
The Dekalog (dir. Kieslowski)
As with The Last Picture Show, one (or ten) I loved but which I must rewatch before commenting on.
Yes, there is something horrifying behind the picket fence. Great examination of the psyche behind a national myth: that the 50s were a humdrum time of conformity and ease. That’s a brilliant idea on its own. But pair with complex psychosexual dynamic, a bildungsroman, great tunes, and some scenes that press their nails into the soft tissue of the front brain. ‘Heineken? Fuck that shit.’
The French Connection
The car chase is likely a genre in itself. Here, the very best.
It’s not just the colour and the mix of live action and animation, music and drama. It’s that there’s some complex psychology at play that is otherwise absent from Disney. Actually, the whole film is more complex than remembered.
Five Easy Pieces
‘What do you mean you don’t have chicken salad?’ What it is to feel the world chafe in every moment, to be too smart and too angry for it. Offers no antidote.
A new one for me. Constant dread, real romance, wonderful cinematography. The long kissing scene is something.
Body horror at the peak of the AIDS crisis? Or what it is for a woman to not be listened to? True horror. Not too dissimilar from Lynch in the sense that the suburb hides its ugliness behind the same and the same and the same.
Devastates. An inverted Western and all the genre’s cant about home.
The Magnificent Ambersons (the perfect first 30 minutes)
The first bit of this has been cribbed from endlessly. Doesn’t dilute its power. I wish Welles was allowed to finish the film he’d intended. Hold out hope that someone will find the negative and re-edit it.
Great mystery there. The slow death.
Gates of Heaven
How is this real? Inspired a whole style, but most miss the affection in this film. Morris was not being condescending.
The Up Series
My favourite doc, if not film. It’s life!
One that could be watched over and over and over again. ‘How do you know tomorrow’s going to happen? It didn’t happen today?’
Deeply charming. Forsyth is my favourite filmmaker. This is such a confident early film. Just decent, as if he listens to people when no one else does. Especially good with young hearts.
I Know Where I’m Going
Another great Scottish film. (Notice a trend?) Romantic in mood more than result.
MI4 (Rogue Nation)
Of its kind, flawless. I have no superhero films. I find this much better.
Celine and Julie Go Boating
Best film about female friendship ever made. Fantastic (lit.). That there is magic in daily life.
Down By Law
I’m tempted to replace this with Patterson. ‘I am a good egg.’ Just the joy of conversation misfiring. Exculpating proof that you barely need anything for a film to work.
The Man With the Golden Gun
Moore was the best Bond and this was his best film. (NOTE: It partially setting is Hong Kong so there’s some bias at play.) Free of the silliness of his later films.
I’m shocked at how good this is. Should be required viewing in Congress.
Last Days of Disco
Barcelona (Whit Stillman)
Stillman remains a favourite. They’re all marriage comedies with botched endings. I don’t think the behaviour of Americans abroad is explored enough, nor is the desire to fit in and listen to uncool music and love uncool things. Happy to resign myself to Mr. S.
The best Gulf War film. Shame about the personality clashes on set because everyone should be proud of this. The scene where they’re barrelling out to Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now is perfect.
Lovers on the Bridge
Great doomed romance. To a visual cinema.
So smart, fearless, timeless.
Line of Duty (Seasons 2, 3, and 4)
Mercurio knows that there is nothing more exciting than two people in a room thinking they both have the upper hand — and who are both wrong.
As with Five Easy Pieces, about the pains of being smart and angry. Quite cruel actually. Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is a great palate cleanse, does the stunning thing of exploring what it is to make the effort to be happy in spite of mounting odds.
An actor who left a body of work with great unity. Certain kinds of emotions are explored by him that no one before or since has. The limits of humour, like when a smile fades.
The cinema of the 70s captured the mood (where our present cinema tries to escape it). Three fascinating films.
Drowning By Numbers
Greenaway’s visual audacity is only exceeded by the language here. And the organising pleasure in lists.
The Larry Saunders Show
The finest American TV comedy.
Alan Partridge (all)
The finest comedic character, period.
The Big Lebowski
A fat finger on the pulse of things. Perhaps the finest film of the 90’s. Throw everything at the wall and, if there’s the slimmest mystery, it will stick.
OJ: Made in America; Tour de France; A Sunday in Hell; Slaying the Badger
Sports can be about everything, but nothing greater than suffering.
A great achievement in anti-drama. Extraordinarily pleasurable. As a relief from the present — a movie needs its moment — or as something enduring?
Driven. Getting the audience to root for Kimball and the man chasing him is fuel. Fun fact: No shot is held longer than six seconds.
Night of the Iguana
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Huston’s films are always specific. Is that a quality of degree? If so, Wise Blood is the most specific. Perhaps this comes from being a book first. Events happen, then fade, then new ones come. There are consequences but no connexions. Throughout, the possibility that belief might lead to something in spite of silence.
You should have to pass a physical to watch this. Relentless. The finest sense of place.