Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
As gorgeous and soft as this film looks, it is deeply unsettling and at times even creepy, and that duality is what makes it so fascinating. The unsolved mystery of three young girls and a teacher who disappear on a daytime trip to Hanging Rock ignites the curiosity and desire of a group of local boys, the last to see them alive. The most beautiful girl, Miranda, is turned into an idealized image, almost angelic, by the boys and her surviving best friend, who is devastated by the tragedy. The film suggests a supernatural world or powerful forces of nature that rise out of the untamed Australian landscape and unleash the emotions of the repressed characters. It’s a very powerful, haunting film, with incredible atmosphere, enduring because of its ambiguity.
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 2000)
This feels like the soul sister of Picnic to me. They both idealize the blonde and the feminine allure in dreamy, sun-dappled imagery with a dark undercurrent. This film dives further into the emptiness left behind when someone leaves you without explanation, and the way that mystery plays into the imagination when accompanied by beauty and desire. The aching of youth, for love, acceptance, or even just rock-and-roll, is captured perfectly in this snapshot of 60s suburbia, in the household of the Lisbon girls and the binoculars of the boys who watch them from their window.
Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
This unique fusion of horror and Western is marred by an overly conventional ending, but boy, is the ride there fun. Transplanting traditional vampire myth into modern Texas, the film has a very sultry, seedy atmosphere complemented by the colorful redneck, bloodsucking characters. Bill Paxton is especially memorable as an unhinged and blackly comic vampire and Lance Henkrison is delightfully menacing as the leader of the clan. The fast paced combined with Tangerine Dream’s moody score creates a wonderfully compelling and unusual take on a familiar narrative.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)
I love how silly this movie is, yet the attention to detail in its visuals is just striking. On the surface, it has all the elements of a romantic, gothic adventure, with its beautiful sets, costumes, and snow-capped mountains. Sharon Tate is at her most stunning as the damsel in distress, and the film is full of humor and great sight gags. Ambitious comedies like this are rare, and this one has fantastic aesthetics to boot.
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
A mesmerizing journey into the dark corners of sexuality and marriage with unmatched atmosphere. Kubrick’s sharp eye is insightful about the temptations of infidelity and the tendency to draw veils around our desires, to repress our feelings until they manifest in dangerous and mysterious ways. The portrayal of human relationships in this film is quite fascinating, as Bill realizes that he understands as little about his wife’s fantasy life as he does the masked strangers at the cult meeting he stumbles into. Yet they are closely bonded despite their secrecy, and his realization of this after his brushes with lust and death, give the film an emotional resonance beyond its visual and auditory pleasures.
Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994)
In many ways, this film is somewhat deceiving. Its overt sexuality is steeped in melancholy and pain, and its characters have far more complexity than they at first suggest. What is supposed to be titillating is shaded with sadness, and the rich atmosphere of the club Exotica is exposed as a hideout for damaged souls. These layers, along with the nonlinear storytelling and overlapping characters, make it a film to be explored and analyzed, not simply experienced for the sensuality of the surface. An incredible acting ensemble, led by Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas, come together for an ending that devastates and resonates long after the credits roll.
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
It’s difficult for me to put in words how much I love this film. The languid pacing, the naturalistic performances, the reverent beauty of nature captured in such pristine detail, it all comes together to create something that’s really an experience. It does feel like it transports you back in time, when life was both simpler and harder, and emotions were felt much more deeply. The astonishing work of Q’orianka Kilcher places us right in the perspective of Pocahontas, as she navigates love and adulthood on the shores of two different worlds, and inside her own heart. The result is both incredibly intimate and epic in scope, truly capturing what it feels like to discover your own strength and beauty, as well as all that in the world around you.
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003)
This quiet, tender film truly understands the fear and uncertainty that comes with first love, and letting your guard down to trust someone. It’s so difficult to fully embrace feelings that intense and new, as much as you might want to, and the tendency of these characters to destroy their relationship rather than break down the walls inside themselves is heartbreakingly honest. Yet, they come to see that despite the pain and betrayal, it’s impossible to simply walk away, and someone that you have cared for so deeply stays with you forever. The honesty of this film holds a lot of comfort for me, as the specificity of their struggles are made universal through the revealing script and beautiful, brave performances.
Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
This is a great argument against historical accuracy in film, heh. Where a lot of biopics end up dry and uninvolving, especially those set far enough in the past that the characters become unrelatable, Amadeus is wildly entertaining and feels fresh and modern because it takes liberties. “Wolfy” Mozart is a wonderful character, a childlike hedonist with a staggering talent and a ridiculous laugh. His bitter rival Salieri gives the film a dark, tragic edge, as he desires the talent that only he has the temperament and religious affiliation to appreciate on the highest level. The music is a character itself here, soaring, grand, and truly worthy of all the drama it causes. Mozart and Salieri writing the Requiem together is one of the greatest musical moments film has ever seen.
The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
Ada is a mute from childhood by choice, and the strength of her will and passion of her spirit tumble out in her music, from the piano that she uses as her voice. When she is separated from the instrument after arriving in New Zealand to marry a man she has never met, the desire for self-expression takes her on a journey of sexual awakening she never expected. Her fiery temper and repressed sensuality attract the rough Baines, and their initial attraction deepens into something purer and more freeing. The intensity of the wild landscapes reflects the powerful emotions of the characters, unleashing their dark sides, but ultimately liberating Ada as she travels across the earth and deep inside herself to find peace within her troubled soul.
I’ve divided these into pairs that I feel go together for thematic reasons, or because of a shared genre, style, actor, country of origin, ect. They’re in no order – it’s hard enough to make a list of films I love, much less decide which ones I love more! Here are the first 10.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
I’ve always found this film strangely romantic with its soft, rosy lighting; snow-dusted landscapes; and its offbeat, tender characterizations. Julie Christie and Warren Beatty have an understated chemistry that is perfectly suited to the music of Leonard Cohen. The final shootout rivals some of the best traditional Westerns, but the film’s humor and openness about sexuality and pleasure fully set it apart from the genre. It gently subverts all expectations with a focus on the quiet beauty found within the hard life of miners and prostitutes, its tragic ending, and the strength of the female voice in a genre which long excluded them.
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
A hypnotic and violent spiritual journey towards death, with moments of overwhelming beauty, and very dark humor along the way. An eccentric and extensive cast is anchored by Johnny Depp, iconic in appearance and subdued in manner, as William Blake, a possible reincarnation of the poet. The film is dense and layered, at times psychedelic and twisted, but immediately accessible and engaging due to fine performances and stunning black and white photography. It too spins all genre tropes on their heads, from its accurate and complex portrayal of Native American characters, to the fusion of elements as diverse as Romantic poetry and rock and roll music into the bleak, bloody landscape of the Old West.
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
As Cabiria, Giuletta Masina gives an unforgettable performance that ranks among cinema’s most haunting and sympathetic. The clownish prostitute suffers humiliation and heartbreak in her quest for love, yet retains her strength and positivity. Although her appearance is striking and odd, and her journey through the underbelly of Rome bizarre at times, her loneliness is palpable, truly relatable. The character lingers on long after the end of the film in the heart of the viewer, like a beloved friend.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
Filmed mostly in closeups of Renee Falconetti’s tearful and rapturous face, perhaps no other film has achieved such intimacy with a character purely through image. Her performance is so powerful that at times it becomes extremely difficult to watch the trials she suffers for her faith. But it is that faith which keeps her strong in the face of death, making this deeply affecting cinema even for hardened religious cynics. A starkly beautiful film that turns a historical tragedy into a searingly personal experience.
Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
This nightmarish exploration of identity, desire, and addiction is staggering simply on the merit of Jeremy Irons’ dual performance as twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly. He embodies each of their distinct characteristics perfectly, so that it becomes simple to tell them apart at a mere glance, despite the similiarity of their appearances – and the fact that they share a job, an apartment, and women. Genevieve Bujold as the disturbed actress who upsets their dynamic is also incredible in what could be a throwaway role, as the film shifts to the disconnect in the twins’ harmony after one of them experiences love. Cronenberg tones down his usual gore and horror here, allowing the film’s performances and themes to unsettle on their own, although good luck getting that one scene out of your head.
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Almost nauseating in its intensity at times, Aronofsky’s portrait of four drug addicts is also remarkable for the sympathy it creates for its broken characters. The rapid editing and camera tricks can be overwhelming, but they place us firmly in the perspective of people whose lives are spiralling out of their control. Unable to find peace within themselves, they destroy their relationships, bodies, and souls, yet the film never condemns them. The performances are so skilled and insightful that their pain jumps off the screen. The overall effect is extremely harrowing, a symphony of shattered dreams that builds to an unbearably tragic climax accompanied by Clint Mansell’s incredible score.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
I really wish I had seen this for the first time as a child. The colors, the excitement, the charmingly dated effects – they inspired as sense of awe in me that I can only imagine would have been greatly amplified 15 years ago. The pace and mystery are maintained throughout all the intersecting storylines, culminating in the joyful finale. It’s refreshing to see a science fiction film that is propelled by wonder and curiosity, not fear and danger. The final product may be slight, but it’s an expertly crafted ride and a great testament to movies as pure entertainment.
Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Without any real narrative, the images and sounds in this film project its themes and ideas clear as day. The juxtaposition of the natural world and the constructions of human society is always around us, but Reggio’s lens amplifies the imbalance and the danger of ignorance. People sleepwalk down city streets, never connecting with the earth that provides for them, that is ancient and mighty and alone. It’s not preachy, but powerful, because of Philip Glass’ amazing score that soars with the camera and chants in a primordial tongue a warning for a world that is falling apart.
Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
One of Pixar’s finest efforts – a bright, colorful adventure full of hilarious and endearing characters. The “rescue mission” narrative is given new life when set in the gorgeous reefs off the coast of Australia (and in a dentist’s fish tank). There is plenty of great and unexpected voicework to be found here, but Ellen Degeneres as Dory, a fish with no short-term memory, is probably the funniest character in an animated film, ever. Beyond the humor, the film has real pathos in the touching father-son relationship between Marlin and Nemo, and the friendships formed during their adventures as they struggle to reunite.
A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)
A zany, madcap comedy with a ridiculously plot and even more ridiculousluy hilarious performances. It’s not concerned with much other than getting laughs, but it succeeds wonderfully in that regard. Kevin Kline won an Oscar for his work here, but Michael Palin and John Cleese are just as funny. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a scene that made me snort harder than Cleese dancing around naked and speaking Russian. Dammit, comedies are hard to write about.