Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My favorite things: An effort at an all-time Top 10 list

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.23.11

People often ask if I have a favorite film.

That's easy; the answer hasn't changed since I was 8 years old, closing in on half a century ago.

Taking it further ... can be difficult.

My Enterprise colleagues, seeking cinema-themed content to help build excitement for this Sunday's Academy Awards celebration, dug into the files and realized that I've never gone on record with a list of all-time Top 10 favorite films. This is true, and with good reason: It's not a stationery target. I see between 150 and 200 films every year, and I've not yet lost my ability to be dazzled; simple logic demands that new "favorites" will replace older ones.

My wife and I have a similar problem at home, with our ever-expanding library of books. We've done pretty well over the years, in terms of constructing new shelves in out-of-the-way corners or just below ceiling height. But we've hit saturation, which demanded a new house rule: If a book comes in, a book must go out. In other words, the total number  whatever that is, and we've never had the nerve to count 'em  no longer changes.

So it is with the nebulous concept of an all-time personal Top 10 movie list. I could supply an answer today, which won't be the answer you'd have gotten 10 years ago, and likely won't be the answer I'd give next month. Times change. Taste changes. People change. I change.

It's also true, however, that each of us tends to be most transfixed by movies, books, songs and TV shows that we see between the ages of, oh, 10 and 22. Many of those early experiences remain fixed forever, sometimes beyond all reason; more than once, I've been embarrassed during a recent visit to something not seen or read for decades, which I remember being much better the first time. In some cases, you really can't go home again.

Attempting to explain all this to my Enterprise colleagues garnered no sympathy; they believe this is a good story idea  and it is, no question  and couldn't care less about my reluctance. An assignment is an assignment. Besides, they insisted, I'm waffling. Surely I can rattle off a personal Top 10.

Well ... no.

At least, not without cheating.

First, let's establish some ground rules. I'm discussing my favorite films, not those I consider the medium's best. The difference is significant: Favorite films are those we choose, repeatedly, to experience the reassuring embrace of an old friend. Big-screen comfort food. Movies which, for each of us, stand the test of time and bear multiple viewings. (In my case, often, lots of multiple viewings.) As a result, my favorites rarely correspond to the films usually cited by pundits as Hollywood's finest, such as Citizen Kane, High Noon, Gone with the Wind, West Side Story, The Godfather and many others.

My taste often is more, ah, eclectic.

Some entries, though, can't make the cut for other reasons. I have to leave out films that I enjoyed tremendously upon first viewing, but find too sad to watch again. (Definitely not something you'd turn to, when feeling blue.) Recent entries on that list include My Dog Skip, The English Patient, A.I., Atonement, Million Dollar Baby and, just a few months ago, Never Let Me Go.

And don't even get me started on guilty pleasures, because I'll never cop to those in public, not even those I've watched dozens of times. You and I don't know each other that well.

With respect to conventional choices, I'm drawn to solid storytelling and memorable characters. I can be seduced by flash and bombast, like anybody else, but it rarely lingers. I seek out and cherish so-called "little" films. Good romantic comedies send me home with a smile, and I'm partial to clever, light-hearted caper thrillers. I also enjoy snuggling up to a series entry, and that's impossible to put on a list. I've long admired Alfred Hitchcock, and frequently re-visit his 50 or so films ... but collectively. Only one Hitchcock film remains an all-time personal favorite, although I watch lots of others. But I can't cite "Hitchcock films" as a single entry ... just as I can't cite Sherlock Holmes films, James Bond films, Star Trek films or the six delightful entries in the William Powell/Myrna Loy "Thin Man" series.

Younger film fans, no doubt, feel the same about Harry Potter, Batman and Lord of the Rings films.

So, right there, I've acknowledged "favorites" that include  between those five series  upwards of 200 movies. (You can't imagine how many Sherlock Holmes films have been made!)

Those aside, in an honest effort to complete this list I've been ordered to create, I went into the tank and generated a collection of likely candidates ... 25 of them.

You see my problem.

Getting ruthless, then, I reluctantly dumped a lot of the aforementioned "little" films that didn't quite make the cut: Marty, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Billy Elliot, Sideways, Almost Famous, Juno, Bend It Like Beckham, Waitress, The Bishop's Wife and Inside Moves (betcha don't know that last one; hie thee hence and add it to your NetFlix queue).

Near-miss romantic comedies: Love, Actually and Sabrina (the first one, with Audrey Hepburn).

Sorry, caper thrillers: The Great Train Robbery and The Thief Who Came to Dinner got set aside.

Now the task grew harder, having reached the point where each cross-out felt like pulling teeth. Time Bandits. All About Eve. Singing in the Rain. Chinatown. What's Up, Doc?

(See? I told you I'd cheat. You're getting something that's closer to a Top 40 list!)

And the dust, having settled, left me with what follows. The top spot, as already mentioned, hasn't changed since forever. The top four haven't changed since 1982, the top six since 2004. The rest ... well ...

Ask me again next week.

No. 10  I desperately wanted Some Like It Hot to be the screwball comedy on this list (goodness, I'm shameless; I sneaked another one in!) but a different Billy Wilder film is further up the list. Instead, then, I'll go with A Fish Called Wanda: slick script, deft direction and impeccable comic performances from the entire cast, starting with John Cleese and Kevin Kline (a well-deserved Oscar winner) and continuing with Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin. Cleese's strip tease, with Curtis groveling in sexual ecstasy to the random foreign words he tosses in her direction (she's a bit of a kink), never fails to make me laugh out loud.

No. 9  Lawrence of Arabia has long been my father's favorite epic, but not mine; that spot belongs to Zulu, a film all but forgotten these days. Quite by accident, it was Michael Caine's first big role; the now-obscure Stanley Baker was the star. The historical saga is true, the genre a classic few-against-many nail-biter. Director Cy Endfield builds the tension slowly, during the first hour, but the second hour  as the undermanned British fort is assaulted over and over and over again  leaves me breathless every time. The only caveat: This must be seen in a jumbo-sized theater, because not even the biggest home entertainment system can do justice to all the action so effectively crammed into the wide-screen presentation.

No. 8  I adore French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's rich imagination, and Amelie remains his masterpiece (thus far). I fell in love with Audrey Tautou the same way I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn so many years ago, and who wouldn't? Jeunet's charming fantasy is a warm, whimsical fairy tale with droll surprises around every corner, all set in a heightened version of Paris that's just a little more perfect than reality.

No. 7  Every list of favorites must include a holiday entry, which brings me to A Christmas Story. This is the first of my two I-told-you-so triumphs on this list: Few of today's avid fans remember that this hilariously faithful adaptation of radio racounteur Jean Shepherd's works was a bomb when released in 1983, but I loved it. I immediately ran out and bought all of Shepherd's books (only four, alas!), and have been collecting his radio shows ever since. (God bless the Internet and all the other "fathead fans" out there.) Lousy box-office results notwithstanding, I knew this picture would be a classic ... and I have the smug satisfaction of having seen it happen.

No. 6  Friends and longtime readers know that I'm drawn to quality animation, so of course this list must include one ... and boy, that was a tough choice. I suspected it'd work down to a Pixar film, but earlier Disney efforts were considered carefully, along with a few one-offs from other studios. Ultimately, though, my fondness for solid storytelling won the day, which led to The Incredibles. Writer/director Brad Bird became the first person to get an Oscar nomination in a scripting category, for an animated film; goodness, but he deserved it. This well-modulated saga, with its tale of all-too-human angst, proved that so-called "cartoon movies" aren't just for children. To which I say, what took the rest of you so long to realize this?

No. 5  Sometimes, everything works perfectly, and that certainly is the case with Charade, often known as the best thriller Hitchcock never made. This twisty classic was helmed by Stanley Donen, who blended Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and a remarkable cast of then-unknowns  including Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy  with a marvelous script from Peter Stone. Every line is wonderful, the conclusion still comes as a surprise to those who've never seen the film, and the package is so stylish that we're willing to forgive the mildly awkward May/December romantic pairing of Hepburn and Grant (which the script makes fun of anyway, so any possible discomfort vanishes). Still my all-time favorite romantic comedy/drama.

No. 4  Here's the second I-told-you-so entry. Davis was one of a handful of test cities given the chance at a very early screening of Blade Runner back in 1982, because Warner Bros. didn't have the faintest idea how to market the film. The Cinema 2 theater was full, and most people walked out unhappy ... which surprised the hell out of me. I'd been blown away: this despite the fact that director Ridley Scott had been forced to compromise his vision a bit, with Harrison Ford's unnecessary voice-over narration and a "happy" ending. I saw a rich, imaginative, intelligent, adult-oriented science-fiction film; I guess everybody else was expecting the empty thrills of another Star Wars. Blade Runner bombed upon release; that didn't lessen my admiration. Scott has tweaked the film a few times since then, making it even better, and now cinema historians recognize it as one of the finest sci-fi epics ever made. And I get to say I told you so.

No. 3  Billy Wilder writes my kind of romantic comedies: snarky ones, with teeth. Things generally turn out happily, more or less, but not without a fair amount of pain  and cutting social commentary  along the way. In a career laden with top-notch efforts, Wilder truly hit a home run with The Apartment, which also boasted finely tuned performances from up-and-coming mega-stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. To this day, aside from being one of my favorite films, it also has my all-time favorite final line: "Shut up and deal."

No. 2  You've been waiting for the Hitchcock entry, right? Well, wait no longer. I worried about having two Cary Grant films on this list, but then brushed such concerns aside: comfort cinema, remember? We go with what we love. I've been lucky enough to see North by Northwest on the big screen three times, supplemented by untold home viewings. It's the quintessential Hitchcock romantic thriller, thanks in great part to Ernest Lehman's witty, Oscar-nominated original screenplay. Hitchcock famously, cheekily, wanted to call this film The Man in Lincoln's Nose. Honestly, I think that would have been a better title.

No. 1  To Kill a Mockingbird. Best book-to-film adaptation ever.

And that's all I need to say.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting: your #1 movie is, and has always been, my #1 movie. #9 is definitely on my list. The others I will have to rent again.