Some films – not a top ten…


I was talking to a friend on the phone and we got talking about films (as usual). She asked what my top ten were. I found it almost impossible to answer, by the time I’d gone through a few we had reached at least twenty and that only skimmed the surface, as soon as she mentioned someone then another came to mind.

I sometimes wonder why we worry about listing but it is in our nature, it applies to all things books, people, cakes, walks, dogs. We grade things. So, lying awake in the night I tried to list to myself a set of films and luckily this was quite good for getting to sleep and had a quite odd effect on my later dream (somehow set in Buckingham Palace photographing paintings, odd).

So as a totally self-indulgent exercise and having not a great deal to say today about much else, here are ten films I would not want to be without and wish to watch again many times.

L’Atalante – Jean Vigo – 1934

This is such a deceptively simple film, break it down to its basic plot – young woman marries the captain of a barge that plies up and down the Seine – longs for the bright lights when they reach Paris – learns lessons. Oh but it is so much more! It is beautiful, poetic and holds a shot which is worth owning the film for – where Dita Parlo in her bridal dress is walking back along the barge and the barge is moving the other way, she is static yet moving, glowing in her white dress in the dusk, it says so much. This is a very great film.

The 39 Steps – Alfred Hitchcock – 1935

I could watch this film for the first 10 and last 10 minutes alone, the scenes in the music hall are just wonderful. The plot runs at a fast pace, it has all of Hitchcock’s hallmarks. The side story in the cottage with the woman longing for Glasgow on a Saturday night and her stern husband shows such fantastic handling of a sub theme worthy of a film in itself. He took what was a pot-boiler adventure and turned it into a wonderful piece of cinema. I love the fish at the flat.

Closely Observed Trains – Jiri Menzel – 1966

This is about sex and a young man’s initiation into life. Set at a sleepy provincial station in wartime Czechoslovakia and made in the Prague Spring era, it comments on freedom within the form filling world. It is funny and sad. The boredom of the regulated life on the station is beautifully portrayed and the threat of the invaders always there working towards its quite surprising tragic and yet heroic end. It is hard to quantify how much influence this film has had on me, it has been a part of my life for more than 40 years.

Badlands – Terence Malick –  1973

Set in the late 1950’s Badlands is about a teenage girl and a man in his early 20’s who go on a killing spree. There is no remorse; it is about a bid for freedom, for being famous. The photography is stunning; the use of Carl Orff’s music magical. It is told through the Sissy Spacek character with a coldness that sometimes chills, to her this is an ordinary life, they set up home in the desert, waiting for the tragedy which from the start you know will unfold. Martin Sheen plays a wanna-be James Dean who is determining their fate.

Kings of the Road – Wim Wenders – 1978

Another road film which borrows from American 50’s films and set along the East-West Germany border. It is a story about the decline of small town cinemas, the friendship between two opposites, the negative influence of American culture on West Germany. There is the ever present border which looms over their lives and all the metaphors of that. It has a lovely pace.

Howl’s Moving Castle – Hayao Miyazaki – 2004

Japanese animation based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones. A girl is cursed by a witch to be an old woman until someone loves her for herself. An amazing adventure set in a strange castle on legs which moves between places and time. I love the door which can open onto four very different places. Superb imaginative drawing immersing you into a steampunk world.

The Antoine Doinel series of films – Francois Truffaut – 1959 to 1979

This series of five films about Antoine Doinel started with The 400 Blows in 1959 and ended with L’amour en fuite in 1979. Truffaut worked with Jean-Pierre Leaud from when he was a boy, following the Doinel character. The 400 Blows is a remarkable film, one of the finest about childhood, about the troubled life of Antoine and could easily be said to have changed cinema. We then follow Antoine as he grows and his usually disastrous quest to find a good relationship through the short Love at Twenty (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed and Board (1970). His relationships never seem to work out because of his unrealistic wishes and idealism. The final film L’amour en fuite (Love on the Run) (1979) uses clips from all the others alongside a typical Doinel storyline where Antoine sees a man ripping up a photograph of a woman in a phonebooth, then he puts the photo together and immediately falls in love with the woman and has to find her. Truffaut actually paid for this film from his earnings acting on Close Encounters and wrote it whilst hanging around between shots!

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Sergio Leone – 1966

Leone took the elements of the western genre and created films which were stripped down, cynical and ‘operatic’. I shouldn’t like them, but am captivated by the powerful images, music and formality. Here Leone moved away from remaking Samurai films and is another road movie in a form of spiral which includes all sorts of sidetracks in the three principal characters’ quest for gold. There are no good characters in Leone’s films, they have self-interest at heart. This is a quite phenomenal experience in the cinema, the classic facial close up with the hat filling the wide screen edge to edge and the music soaring in time with the action. I could equally have chosen Once Upon a Time in the West, which is a better story, but prefer the Eastwood character to that of Charles Bronson who seems wrongly cast in an otherwise great film.

I Served The King of England – Menzel – 2006

More recent Menzel, but from the same author as source. I loved this film from the first few seconds. It has elements of Chaplin in the first part and with all Menzel is basically about sex! Here the ‘hero’ Jan is searching for success and will do almost anything to become rich. The one thing he only seems successful at is pleasing women! The film has two time periods, the late 30’s and the War, and the 1960’s from where the story is told. The young Jan works as a waiter, much of this has a Chaplinesque quality as he tries in vain to improve himself. He becomes a Nazi to be able to marry a German girl he is enamoured with and improve his prospects. Then just as he reaches his goal, gets arrested by the new Checkoslovak Communist Government for being rich! He is let out and sent to live in internal exile where he meets a professor and his student and dreams of new successes. It is as all Menzel’s films a parody of society and the prevailing politics, it is subtle, amusing and quite delightful.

8½ – Fellini – 1963

It’s about creativity and what it does to you. It is a celebration of film, women, life. And yet it is about a film director having a creative and psychological breakdown. As with all Fellini for many years after this the past is as important as the present. Guido’s fantasies are lived out in his memories which are weighing him down and are taking out his present complicated life. He yearns for the simpler life of his childhood, whereas he is living under the intense pressure to complete another film. I love the last ten minutes with its wonderful music and the dance of his life (a dance of death?) where all his past and present come together on the set of his impossible film, life is suddenly simpler. Love it!

I could add pages on films by Kurosawa, Carne, Ozu, Godard, Leigh, Aldomovar, Bunuel, Ozon, Ford, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Fassbinder, Tartovsky, Capra, Renoir, Passolini, and so many more. But the films above are ten (or so) I can live with every day and regularly watch bits from when they come to mind. Some I have watched well over 100 times, they are a part of my life!

Today’s photograph is another old one from a hot sunny day in the south of France a couple of years ago.


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