Every year around this time I try to make a top ten list. This morning Facebook kindly reminded me of this tradition so I now take laptop in…uhh…lap to pen this year’s list. This list kind of just evolves and changes and morphs. It’s also super off-the-top-of-my-head and by the seat of my pants, so I request that no one holds me to this list too stringently. If there’s anything that you should take away from this it’s just that I like movies way too much.
1. Ran (1985, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
When I think of “epic” movies, a few titles come to mind: Ben-Hur, Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, etc, etc. But Ran takes the cake. It is both grand in its scale and also its look at the human mind as it falls apart. This loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” not only retains the wonderful story of an old man unwanted by his children, but is also an incredible war movie in its own right. I believe Kurosawa time and time again wholly proved himself as an incredible artist, but, even were that not so — if Ran were the only film which he left behind — I believe that this film would give him the legacy which he deserves.
2. Vampyr (1932, dir. Carl Th. Dreyer)
Vampyr had the odd legacy of being made as a silent film but ultimately be converted into a sound film. This involves a process of some synced dialogue as well as sound effects and printing a composed score onto the film strip. But, rest assured, this movie solidly stands in the realm of silent film. It is an incredible exercise in visual gothic filmmaking and storytelling. It is a more a horrifying take on the vampire mythos than Nosferatu ever dreamt of being, and assuredly stands among not only the greatest silent films of all time but also the greatest horror films of all time. If ever a nightmare has been put on film this is it.
3. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)
This movie mostly serves as a parable about the dangers of ambition and greed. It would seem from this film that the only result of those things is death, destruction, and pain for all involved. Part of why I love this film so much is its careful weaving of a traditional period drama with a ghost story. This movie exquisitely tears apart and then blends two narratives and their individual stories back together. I won’t even get started on the visuals, which are absolutely amazing. I get chills every time that rowboat appears out of the fog crossing that lake.
4. Touch of Evil (1958, dir. Orson Welles)
Film noir is such an incredible thing. The way the genre looks at morality, ethics, characters and their motivations is a sight to behold. Also, Orson Welles as the crooked cop Hank Quinlin is a performance which must be seen to be believed. He simply steps into the role, disappears, and comes out on the other side (of the wind?) as what might be the most physically and morally greasy character in all of cinema.
5. The General (1925, dir. Buster Keaton)
This is the greatest comedy of all time. Period. The end. The pure visual delight that exists in this movie is awe-inspiring. Keaton’s attention to detail, careful staging, and brilliant eye for visuals all help create not only a brilliant comedy but an amazing civil war movie. Because of Keaton’s staging and attention to detail this movie often looks like a civil war era photograph come to life. Couple these things with very clever yellow/sepia tinting and the movie is able to transport is viewers back to the civil war.
6. The Revenant (2015, dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
This movie has been trapped in my mind since I first saw it. Just stuck there. The pure visual and visceral power translated across the screen by this film is overwhelming at times. This movie can be difficult to watch and might be a tad bit over-long, and yet I just don’t care right now. As I sit here trying to think of my ten favorite movies (right now), this movie is so deeply lodged into my mind that I can’t separate myself from it. Not that awards or any such thing actually matter, but this should have won best picture. Period. It’s the best thing that happened to cinema last year.
7. Dry Wood (1973, dir. Les Blank)
The films of Les Blank are a very strange look at everything Americana. Throughout his career he explored music, food, and people — mostly people. Dry Wood is sort of a look at all of the above. It just meanders around and explores creole life in the delta and features a super catchy soundtrack (a trademark of Blank’s films) and food — lots of food. Watching this movie you’ll often find yourself wondering what’s become of the people captured by Blank’s camera. This movie is a lot of fun, even if it doesn’t always seem to be coherent. But coherence is overrated.
8. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, dir. John Ford)
This isn’t Ford’s most artistic movie and it certainly isn’t his prettiest, but dang it if this isn’t the most fun hour and a half he ever sent off to the movie theater. Watching Henry Fonda chew the scenery as everyone’s favorite tall-hatted president is just a good time. Sergei Eisenstein, a famous director in his own right, said this was a movie he would take and claim for himself were he able. I’m right there with ya’ Eisey, right there with ya.
9. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, dir. David Gelb)
It’s weird, but when I think of food (especially certain food) “cleanliness” is one of the first words that comes to mind. I just want food to be clean, especially when I think of things like sushi. I suspect some of that might have to do with my upbringing, but it’s also just because gross food is gross. Thankful David Gelb’s movie is amazingly clean looking. The digital cinematography (which I am usually not fond of because of its sterile look) perfectly suits the subject of this movie. Also this movie is just incredibly compelling. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an incredibly satisfying and compelling movie.
10. Spirited Away (2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki’s career is filled with incredible visual spectacle and beauty. His worlds, characters, and stories brim with life and leap off of the screen. Oftentimes his films feature the logic of a simple bedtime story, which gives them a wonderfully inviting and comforting quality. Spirited Away, being the sort-of-not-really Japanese answer to Alice in Wonderland, is a strange tale of ghosts and spirits who live and operate in a world similar but very different to our own. The growth of the main character, Chihiro, is fun to watch as she grows from a typical little girl to a very mature young lady. Miyazaki’s greatest strength is his development of character, a feature which is clearly on display in this film.
While this isn’t an extremely diverse list, these are the films which I cannot at current get out of my head. In one way or another each of these films has impacted me artistically. I’ll tell you the truth though, after watching Inside Llewyn Davis last night it nearly made this list. Yet these ten films can’t be moved from my psyche at the present.