In a similar vein to the piece I wrote recently about the paintings that had had a sudden, visceral impact on me, here’s a few of the mainstream films that have had that kind of effect. It’s not a definitive list of ‘the greatest films’ or even of my ‘favourite’ films, just a few thoughts about some of the most affecting ones I've seen.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s long, languorous, sad and sporadically shocking epic stunned me when I first saw it. Utilising Aimee Mann’s songs as clothing and soul for its knotted, loose, artful stories, and employing Tom Cruise in a role that makes the most of his innate charismatic creepiness, it seems to occupy a genre of its own. It wanders in and out of the arthouse and picks its way down long, muddy tracks that cross the mainstream with style, mystery and a biblical vision of human frailty.
Silence, sunshine and steel. Blue-grey, doomed night-city skies. Stabbing sparks of loss and crushed ideals. Betrayal, machismo and vulnerability. Noise, fear and death. Pacino. De Niro. Brilliant.
Sweet, self-contained surrealism that stays just the right side of sentimentality and weaves its oddness, hurt and humour in and around Natalie Portman’s twisting, twirling sense of herself, Zach Braff’s depression and their attempts to find connections in a world they can never belong to. Came along at a time when its yearning and quiet desperation chimed loudly in my own life.
Saw this with my grandfather when I was a kid and loved it. Bogart’s cool, clear focus, Mary Astor’s knowing radiance and the dark, tense story were entrancing. Watching it again as an adult revealed the meticulous intricacies of John Huston’s direction, the wry use of unexpected, prying camera-angles and a plot that still made little sense but whose convolutions were rendered irrelevant by a script of sharp, jabbing acuity.
Requiem For A Dream
Not sure I ever want to watch this again: disturbing, suicidally-bleak, nightmarish, a quick-cut montage of staccato scenes of addiction, violence and grim sexual torture . . . but also compelling, memorable and supremely seductive in its depth, power and challenge.
Sea Of Sand
Can’t really remember anything about this but it was good guys (us) against the bad guys (the Germans) in the desert with tanks. And it was the first time my parents ever let me stay up late and watch a film with them on a Saturday night.
A minor Scorsese, really, but still beautifully played and constructed. Memorable for two scenes of sickening, intimate violence that I can see and feel- in full, stomach-ripping colour- right now, as I write this. Another one I won’t be rushing to watch again.
Breakfast At Tiffanys
The perfect film adaptation of the perfect novella. Apart, that is, from Mickey Rooney’s fantastically crude and miserably racist portrayal of Mr Yunioshi, which is now wrestling with the baseball-bat murders in Casino, the sex in Requiem for a Dream and Spurs’ defending against Bolton last week as the most disturbing series of images currently in my head. Must think about Audrey on the window-sill, must think about Audrey . . .
An erotic, involving, harsh and noirish crime film, Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are wonderful in this punchy, lesbian subversion of gangster clichés. I loved it when I first watched it and I’ve never seen it again but that’s OK: like a few others on this list, I suspect it’s not a great work of art but it can sit there at the back of my mind, pop out every now and then and make me smile.
Live And Let Die
Is it enough to use 'being an adolescent boy' as the main reason for this having such an effect on me? The opening New Orleans funeral scene is captivating, creepy and funny, it’s got Jane Seymour in it and, when I first saw it, a few years after its release, the bit where Bond uses his magnetic watch to unzip Madeline Smith’s dress was startlingly arousing. Then again, at that age, everything was startlingly arousing . . .
Am I the only one who thinks Gregory Peck is crap in this? Wooden and awkward, he does his best to prick the bubble blown by the soul-shattering beauty of Audrey Hepburn and by a sweetly-romanticised Rome but, thankfully, fails. His Everyman stiffness is swept aside by the fairy-tale gorgeousness of his co-star and the setting; black and white has never felt so full of colour.
Tarantino’s least annoying and least self-conscious film. Engaging, witty, its violence purposeful and (relatively) restrained, the idiosyncrasies and too-clever references are more subtle than in his more acclaimed works. The car-park scene where De Niro's finally had enough of Bridget Fonda is both shocking and incredibly funny, a razor-thin tightrope Tarantino so often falls from. Superb.
Lost In Translation
Exquisite. Beautifully-shot, a study in cultural and interpersonal alienation that manages to be clever, funny, challenging and entertaining. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray are both brilliant, Tokyo is a neon-lit heaven/hell and the nuances, hints and implications powerful and invigorating. The ending is one of the best in cinematic history.
2001: A Space Oddysey
Watched this with my dad when I must’ve been about ten and neither of us understood it. That lack of understanding was a really poignant moment of contact between us.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A wonderful, wonderful piece of work that joyously and profoundly plays with memory, loss, regret and the necessity of love. I completely fell for it when I first saw it: Kate Winslet is beautiful, sensual and vital, Jim Carrey vulnerable, subtle and real and Michel Gondry’s direction is clever and provoking- multi-layered, playing tricks, but always for a purpose. A film that lodges in the heart and leaps across both our narratives and its own, its meaning now far different for me than it originally was, the answer to its central question now changed. It remains one of those pieces of cinema that simultaneously inhabits its own magical world and, like all great art, reflects, illuminates and expands ours.