In our family we don’t divorce our men; we bury ‘em! - Stella (Ruth Gordon)
In common with most people, I like movies. I don’t pretend to know much about movie criticism, I’m painfully ignorant about directorial techniques and I probably couldn’t recognize a “great” film even if I had a cheat-sheet. I do, however, know what I like, and can often even tell you why I like it. I’m not going to claim that any of these films are “great” in the artistic sense, and though I’ve seen several of today’s selections on “great film” lists I don’t like them for that reason. Despite today’s title, these are not actually my favorite movies; I already listed those in my very first “Favorite Things” column over a year ago. Other columns have discussed my favorite horror movies, musicals, short films, obscure movies, Christmas movies and monsters and horror stars; this one lists 16 more of my favorite movies that don’t fall into any of those categories (though I did mention #8 in the “obscure movies” column), listed in my usual reverse chronological order.
1) Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) What I like best about this movie and its sequel is that they’re unrepentantly dumb. In other words, they make no pretense to be anything other than good, clean fun. And while most time travel movies defy logic due to poor writing or failure to think things out, I get the feeling the writers of this one made a list of time travel rules and then broke every one on purpose. My love for these flicks has rendered me totally unable to take Keanu Reeves seriously no matter what role he plays.
2) Highlander (1986) Truly unique movies are rare in modern Hollywood, but this was one; the aesthetic failure of several moronic sequels and a TV series ripoff prove that. If you’ve never seen it, the trailer is a decent introduction, though I have one major quibble with it (and with the film itself): the hero’s modern love interest is completely unbelievable and pales into insignificance besides the beautiful depiction of his first marriage, which never fails to reduce me to tears.
3) Dune (1984) Yes, I’ve read the book, and I’m aware of how the film departs from it; I’m also aware that Herbert was satisfied with it. There are three cuts of this movie: the theatrical cut, which leaves out far too much exposition; the extended television cut, which includes the additional material but removes important scenes that were deemed too intense for broadcast, and a combined cut from a region 2 DVD (of which I own a bootleg) which has all the scenes from both theatrical and TV cuts. The best part about this film is that there were no concessions to modernism chauvinism; the culture is depicted in all its strangeness and political incorrectness.
4) Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) As I’ve stated before, this and The Undiscovered Country are IMHO the only Star Trek movies truly worthy of the legacy; Khan is the only one which feels directly connected to the series, and in all of Hollywood history it may be the sequel which surpasses its progenitor by the greatest margin (though you’re welcome to make other nominations).
5) Time Bandits (1981) Terry Gilliam’s visions are always baroque and usually tinged with darkness (except when they’re absolutely immersed in it), and Time Bandits is no exception. Though the movie is absolutely hilarious, its portrayal of a chaotic universe ruled by a rather cold and disinterested God is rather like Monty Python meets H.P. Lovecraft, and can be disquieting if one thinks too hard about it.
6) Serial (1980) This little-remembered satire of Bay Area ‘70s nuttiness is probably best appreciated by those old enough to remember the time period, and though it doesn’t bear quite as much repeated watching as most of the other titles on the list I still enjoy it every time I see it. Bonus for horror fans: Christopher Lee in a very unorthodox comedic role.
7) Bedazzled (1967) This isn’t the only film on this list who memory has been sullied by a shoddy remake, but it may be the only one so completely eclipsed by that remake that almost nobody seems to remember the original. And that’s truly sad, because this one is very funny, very clever, very wicked and very, very British. Dudley Moore plays a hapless and rather silly short-order cook who sells his soul to the Devil (Peter Cook) for seven wishes and learns about the proverbial “long spoon” over and over again, but the bits between the wishes are actually the funniest.
8) Lord Love a Duck (1966) One of the blackest of all black comedies; it would not be out of place on a double bill with Dr. Strangelove, though this one prefers to take pot-shots at a large number of cultural absurdities (often in drive-by mode) while Strangelove is a sustained attack on one target. The trailer isn’t lying; Roddy McDowell’s character really does commit mass murder (during the opening credits!) and the rest of the movie explains what drove him to it.
9) Goldfinger (1964) In a sense, this movie is here as a representative of all the Sean Connery Bond films, but I also feel it would stand on its own merits without the others. Everything that is right with the series is exemplified in this one, and its problems less apparent here than in other installments; even some of the series’ conventions are lampooned here, but without devolving into self-parody as the later Roger Moore films did.
10) Bell, Book and Candle (1958) The lovely Kim Novak is a modern witch who casts a love spell on her neighbor in order to get back at his awful fiancée, an old schoolmate of hers…then finds herself falling in love with him for real. Though this film was one of the inspirations for Bewitched, the witches here are not semi-godlike but rather just people with an extra talent (stronger in some than others). The supporting cast is fantastic; of especial interest for readers of this blog is Ernie Kovacs’ character, a writer whose utter ignorance of the witchcraft on which he claims to be an “expert” calls to mind certain self-proclaimed “experts” on prostitution.
11) Twelve Angry Men (1957) One set. Twelve actors. No special effects. Virtually all talk and no action. But if you’re anything like me, it will rivet your attention from start to finish. One conscientious holdout juror (Henry Fonda) in a murder trial eventually helps the others to recognize the gaps in the prosecution’s case that they at first ignored or did not want to see. One of those movies that’s more timely now than when it was first filmed.
12) Rashômon (1950) The story of a rape and murder in feudal Japan, told from four points of view: that of the murderer, those of the two victims, and that of a witness the others did not know was there. This device has since become a trope, and the film’s name practically an idiom, but none have ever done it as well as the original.
13) Mighty Joe Young (1949) Though the movie was a conscious imitation of King Kong (and even shared a writer, star and special-effects director), I must admit that I really like it better than its more iconic predecessor. Joe is a character rather than simply a monster, and thanks to the wizardry of the young Ray Harryhausen his personality really shines through; the audience cares about him in a way we never really care for Kong, and later incarnations of the King have included more than a little Joe in him.
14) Rope (1948) An underappreciated Hitchcock adaptation of a 1929 play based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case. Like Twelve Angry Men, it’s a very “pure” drama: one set, a small number of characters, mostly talk with little action, and designed so as to resemble a stage play as closely as possible. Beside the masterful buildup of suspense, one of the things I like best about it is its use of very long takes (up to ten minutes each), cut so as to appear like one long, seamless filming.
15) Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) You’ve probably noticed that I like black comedies, and here’s another one: Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers that his elderly maiden aunts are bumping off lonely old men with poisoned wine and burying their bodies in the cellar. And then there are his two brothers…as Mortimer explains to his new bride, “insanity runs in my family…It practically gallops.”
16) The Thief of Bagdad (1940) Though I love Arabian Nights movies in general (such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which just barely missed the cut), I have an especial love for this one. It has been remade several times, but this one is by far the best; if you’ve never seen it, you’ll be amazed at the extent to which Disney plagiarized it for Aladdin.