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Archive for December 1st, 2011

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things.
  –  Oscar Hammerstein II

One year ago today I wrote, “As we now move into Yuletide, you may notice many of my columns become more lighthearted and fanciful; this is not to say I plan to spare my scalpel on those who deserve it, but neither should you be surprised if  I sometimes veer more toward cuteness than bitchiness.”  My columns for today and tomorrow are examples of that; back in June I mentioned a few of my favorite things, and I’d like to share a few lists of other favorites with you.  If any of you are curious about what my favorite fill-in-the-blank might be, just ask in the comments and I’ll answer if I can (there are a surprising number of things I really don’t have a favorite of, such as food).  Since I’ve already written at great length about my favorite horror movies, let’s start with my 14 favorite non-horror movies, arranged in the same reverse chronological order I used before:

1)  The Princess Bride (1987)  Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…what’s not to like?  This fairy tale can literally be enjoyed at any age, and bears repeated watching better than nearly any other movie I’ve ever seen.

2)  Big Trouble in Little China (1986)  Like The Raven below, this flick is as effective a comedy as it is an adventure fantasy, and there’s even a prostitution connection; a Chinese girl is kidnapped by a gang of human traffickers, from whom she is in turn stolen by an undead emperor of ancient China.  Her fiancée and his truck-driver friend (Kurt Russell), with the help of an eccentric wizard, must then rescue her from a palace hidden beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown before it’s too late.  The only reason this movie isn’t much better known is that 20th-Century Fox didn’t bother to promote it at all.

3)  Heavy Metal (1981) This anthology of short fantasies inspired by the magazine of the same name is one of the last examples of hand-drawn North American big-screen animation.  Those who take it too seriously often dislike it; those who view it for what it is generally enjoy it.  Mae and I first saw it together in the theater over a year before our relationship turned sexual, and every time I re-watch it I am reminded of what it was like to be a 14-year-old in the first blush of young womanhood, giggling with her best friend at sexual situations in an R-rated movie we technically shouldn’t have been admitted to without a parent, in a cool, dark theater with a gigantic bag of buttered popcorn on a hot summer afternoon in New Orleans.

4)  Excalibur (1981)  John Boorman’s spectacular retelling of Arthurian legend is still my favorite film version of the stories; it’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen in a theater more than once.  Jeff took me to the very first showing in New Orleans, and from the minimal but powerful opening titles I was enthralled.  This movie shaped my view of what a fantasy universe should look like forever after, and even introduced me to the now-almost-legendary Helen Mirren.

5)  Witch’s Sister (1979)  I apologize for listing this one, because if you haven’t already seen it, you probably never will.  It was a multi-part teleplay on the children’s television series Big Blue Marble, based on the book by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and was only broadcast once to my knowledge; in 1988 it turned up on Showtime as a unified film and I taped it, then in 2003 I transferred the aging tape to DVD.  The plot is a simple one; ten-year-old Lynn Morley imagines that her older sister Judith is taking lessons in witchcraft from their old Scottish neighbor, Mrs. Tuggle, and fears that her young brother, Stevie, is in danger.  Like Heavy Metal, this is a movie which evokes a certain time in my life, so it’s impossible to explain why I love it so except to say that I identified with both Lynn and Judith, if that makes any sense to you at all.

6)  The Last of Sheila (1973)  An all-star cast sets sail on a cruise along the Riviera aboard the yacht of a movie producer with a taste for parlor games and sadistic jokes.  Even if you don’t like murder mysteries you may enjoy this one; it’s the earliest example I know of what I call “puzzle movies”, films such as The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects  and Fight Club in which the genre takes a back seat to the game the filmmakers play with the audience:  “All the clues are on the screen in front of you; can you put them together before we explain it to you?”

7)  A Clockwork Orange (1971)   I like just about everything Stanley Kubrick ever made (with the possible exception of Barry Lyndon), but I must admit that this is IMHO the one which most bears repeated watching.  It’s a sign of the strength of Burgess’ novel and of Kubrick’s mastery of his craft that the movie actually succeeds in getting the viewer to sympathize with a sociopathic rapist and murderer, and practically everything about this film from music to set design to dialog is both striking and highly memorable.

8 )  7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)  This George Pal gem, in which Tony Randall plays 7 different roles, never fails to make me feel good.  A mysterious Chinese wizard teaches the residents of a small Western town to treasure what they have:  “The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it.  The way the sun goes down when you’re tired, comes up when you want to be on the move.  That’s real magic.  The way a leaf grows.  The song of the birds.  The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it…that’s circus enough for anyone.  Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart.  Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand.  Every time you stop and think, ‘I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!’  Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”

9)  Jason and the Argonauts (1963)  Ray Harryhausen’s masterpiece, full of excitement and derring-do and those wonderful stop-motion creatures which still look better to me than 99% of those generated by computers.  Add to that performances by two of my favorite 1960s actresses, Nancy Kovack (as Medea) and Honor Blackman (as the goddess Hera) and you have a foolproof formula to holding my attention.  In the days before home video, I watched this movie literally every time I caught it on television.

10)  The Raven (1963)  Roger Corman’s “horror comedy” starts as a takeoff on the legendary Poe-m (sorry about that) and quickly develops into a battle between a good wizard (Vincent Price) and an evil one (Boris Karloff), with Peter Lorre, Hazel Court and a very young Jack Nicholson as interested parties.  The film climaxes with the best magical duel of the entire pre-CGI era.

11)  North by Northwest (1959)  Cary Grant at his most charismatic, Eva Marie Saint at her loveliest and James Mason at his most villainous star in this tale of a hapless executive drawn into a web of intrigue, directed by Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his powers.  Need I say more?

12)  Forbidden Planet (1956)  Before Leslie Neilsen became a comedian he was a leading man, and here he portrays the character who is generally considered to be the original model for Captain Kirk.  Add Anne Francis, Walter Pidgeon and Robby the Robot to a script based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you’ve got one of the all-time classics of science fiction.

13)  The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)  This is one of the first serious science fiction films, and since the minimal special effects take a back seat to old-fashioned concepts like “story”, “character development” and especially “acting”, it’s still better than just about everything which has come along in the genre since.  Michael Rennie’s portrayal of the alien diplomat Klaatu set the bar for humanoid aliens for decades.

14)  Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)  José Ferrer in the role he was born to play, the swordsman/poet with the enormous nose whose love for the beautiful Roxanne clashes with his unbending pride.  It starts out a hilarious comedy, quickly develops into romantic intrigue and exciting adventure, and invariably ends with my crying my eyes out accompanied by racking sobs.  I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who watches this powerful film to remain unmoved.

Tomorrow:  My favorite music.

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