This isn’t a top ten. I would find it very difficult to do that, as there are so many films that I, more or less, love equally. In fact, there are films missing from this that are certainly among my favourites, but I have covered them in my 10 favourite horror films list. So please see that for why I think “Psycho”, “Jaws”, “Nosferatu”, “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “Silence of the Lambs” are masterpieces and would otherwise be on this list. There are no animated or children’s films on here either, as I also think that “Watership Down”, “The Secret of NIMH” and “Transformers: The Movie” probably need their place on a separate list.
Geoffrey Rush is perhaps one of the most talented actors working in film today. In Quills, a film that boasts a brilliant supporting cast in the form of Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine and Kate Winslet, Rush gives us the perfect Marquis de Sade. He seems like he was born to pay the part of the man who gave his name to sadism. The film defies a genre, resting very uneasily under the category of “period drama”. This is no Jane Austen adaptation. Doug Write does a brilliant job in adapting his Obie prize-winning stage play to the screen, where the medium of the cinema provides some brilliant locations in the form of the Charenton asylum and Dr Royer-Collard’s repossessed chateau. Full respect must go to the production designer, Martin Childs.
The film does not pretend to dramatize history; rather it uses historical figures to illustrate certain themes that de Sade and the libertine movement championed. Best of all, like most truly great films and plays, it does not provide an easy answer. Instead it shows both the hypocrisy of the forces of conservatism and the dangers of unbridled liberalism. For me, though, it is more about ideas and how they never die.
This film has dated and for the time being, seems to belong in the 1990s. At the time of its release, however, it was my unmatched favourite picture. It is no way a faithful adaptation of James O’Barr’s also brilliant limited comic book series, but exists completely as its own entity. The film won notoriety and further morbid kudos in the Goth community due to the tragic death of Brandon Lee during a shooting scene. An extra air of spookiness was added by the coincidence that Lee’s father the iconic martial arts actor, Bruce Lee, also died at a young age before the completion of a film where his character “dies”, in a manner of speaking, and then comes back to life. However, these factors do not overshadow the fact that “The Crow” is a very good film.
As great as Lee is at making the role of Eric Draven his own – and he seems to relish every moment of it – another actor really steals the show. Michael Wincott is perhaps one of the most under-rated actors in the business. He has been criminally overlooked as a major player in Hollywood when one considers his career. According to the book of the film, Wincott was chosen for the role of “Top Dollar”, a very minor role in the original graphic novel, when he stole the show from Gerard Depardieu in “1492: Conquest of Paradise”. He does again with Eddie Murphy in the otherwise pretty bad “Metro” and even does it with the great Morgan Freeman in “Along Came a Spider” by giving us a more complex kind of bad guy. “The Crow” is his crowning achievement though and the alternative community know this well. It is he who brings life to the film’s best and most quotable lines, and it is he who helps keep the film’s cult status.
Swimming with Sharks
This film was made in a short length of time and on a small budget. I tend to like a lot of films that were stage plays. Swimming with Sharks was made into a stage play and you can see why. It is a real actor’s movie, with some brilliant scenes featuring Kevin Spacey playing the amoral and overbearing movie mogul, Buddy Ackerman, and Frank Whaley who plays the oppressed and vengeful Guy. It is the secret story of showbusiness and what every kid should watch before they decide media studies is an easy option. It would go on to inspire the novel “The Devil Wears Prada” and the rest is history.
I first saw this film by chance whilst channel surfing on Sky back in the ’90s. It was repeated periodically and every time it struck a different chord with me. I feel it is one of the most misunderstood movies ever made.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
I know I said no horrors on this list, but this is actually a pretty ineffective horror. It has jumps, creepiness, horrific imagery and deals with the supernatural – hell, it is based on one of the most famous horror novels ever written – but this is no scare fest. I doubt any of its beautifully crafted scenes has made many top 100 scariest moments’ lists. However, it is a visually stunning film with a brilliant cast, only marred by Keanu Reeves and his atrocious attempt at an English accent. Many have argued that is an example of style over substance, but in its defence it is one of the most loyal adaptations of Stoker’s novel adding in the historical Dracula to provide an interesting origin story and it turns Dracula into a Byronic hero. This last factor makes the film more of a Gothic romance than a horror picture and it is all the better for it.
“Scum” is another “problem” or “uncomfortable” film to watch and yet re-watchable it certainly is. Like other great films such as “Doubt” or “The Woodsman”, it doesn’t try to answer questions only pose problems. Over time it has found a rather dubious position as a macho film, a reputation that has later ensured some of roles Ray Winstone has secured in the past two decades. The original play is also certainly worth watching, mainly for its differences. The film tells the story of a brutal borstal, the type that were common in the 1970s, and the fight for survival of four inmates. Sadly much of the films’ messages are overlooked and some scenes, although perfect in their execution, roused a disturbing response in some audiences.
Scum is often credited as the film that saw Alan Clarke’s rise to critical acclaim. Having directed the original TV play, he turned the film into a cult success and would then later go to become a notorious force in the independent British film world. However, it is the writing of Roy Minton that is criminally forgotten. Minton painstakingly researched the story he turned into the TV drama and remains a rare example of an uncompromising artist. Sadly although the resulting feature film version is arguably one of the best pictures ever made, his vision was compromised and led to the end of his working partnership with Clarke.
A Few Good Men
This is yet another excellent stage play turned perfectly into a feature film. Once again, it tackles difficult subjects and a topic that interests me greatly: peer pressure. Like “Swimming with Sharks”, Nicholson’s role of Col. Jessop presents a philosophy that does ring true and yet is clearly corrupted. There is a great cast on display here and some wonderful courtroom battles, where verbal fencing is every bit as exciting as the most elaborate and carefully choreographed action sequence. Cruise and Nicholson’s final stand-off is great and worth waiting for, but there are loads of great warm-up scenes with Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland and Demi Moore that take you to this moment.
The story itself presents awkward questions and offers some sort of resolution, but there is still a lot more on offer than a simple moral story and it prompts many re-watches.
There are many great comedies and the genre does not get nearly enough attention when we get to awards time. However, “Duck Soup” presents pure anarchic comedy at its all time best. The Marx Brothers had a very fast and steep climb to producing this masterpiece and then a very slow but gradual fall as it switched from Paramount Pictures. Duck Soup shows the four brothers brilliantly evolved from their stageshow adaptations to a proper big screen feature, having cut their teeth previously with “Horse Feathers”. There is the right balance of songs and less attempt at a serious storyline.
You may notice that I also have a sort of preference and sympathy for uncompromising works, where artists get the opportunity to cut loose. “Ed Wood” was a film that Walt Disney Pictures agreed to back and distribute for Tim Burton on the condition he made “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. This is a film that if the corporations had their way would have been little more than a low budget art house piece. As it turns one of history’s worst directors, but greatest dreamers, gets a film with a budget more than he could have ever hoped for. Ed Wood is a wonderfully affectionate piece about passion and desperation in showbusiness that could work equally well in a double bill with “Gods and Monsters” (the fictionalized biopic of the last days of “Bride of Frankenstein” director James Whale) or the aforementioned “Swimming with Sharks”. Johnny Depp is in fine form and this is the best collaboration he and Burton have done together. It’s a real labour of love.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy
What happens when you give an innovative B movie director the budget and opportunity to make the film adaptations of his favourite written work? “Lord of the Rings” is a truly a remarkable moment in movie history. Tolkien always said that his magnum opus could never be properly dramatized. Jackson doesn’t really do this. Understanding what the best radio adaptation of the trilogy understood, he divided scenes up so that they would make more dramatic sense. He does edit and he was never going to please everyone, especially not certain sections of Tolkien’s fan club, but his resulting piece – which I see as a single feature – makes few concessions. For this reason I would certainly recommend that to really appreciate these films you watch the extended editions.
The Empire Strikes Back
The reason why “The Empire Strikes Back” stands out in the Star Wars cannon is down its daring. This is a family, arguably children, targeted event picture and yet it ends on a bittersweet cliffhanger with the hero having lost his duel and his right hand to the film’s main bad guy who just let’s drop a new element to the storyline that changes everything. The effects were revolutionary, even after the original Star Wars and the new characters – such as Yoda – wonderfully compliment and don’t overshadow the established cast, but it is that boldness which makes this film so important. Big budget mainstream films could have a dark element and not have a happy ending. These would be concepts we would see taken on big time during the 2000s. With Empire, Lucas could also pay further homage to the chapter serial idea he had initially with Star Wars and give it a cliffhanger ending.