100 Favourite Films – Part 4/5

Continuing my countdown of my 100 Favourite films (click here for the criteria)…

40 to 21:

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40. Once upon a time in the West (1968) – Another great western, and one that was inexplicably roasted by critics on its initial release. Many prefer Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, but for me this operatic masterpiece is his greatest work. The cast are terrific – especially Henry Fonda playing against type as a stone-cold killer. Ennio Morricone’s music is astonishingly beautiful too.

Favourite Line: “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”

39. The Magic Box (1951) – An absolutely lovely film, shot through with brilliantly understated melancholy, about cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene (beautifully played by Robert Donat) that featured cameos from anyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time. The scene where Donat drags a policeman (Laurence Olivier) off the street to see the moving picture camera he has just perfected is a wonderful celebration of the sheer joy of invention.

Favourite Line: “Enjoy yourselves!”/“We are going to church William!”

38. The Terminator/Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1984, 1991) – The rule of thumb with James Cameron is the bigger his budgets get, the less interesting his films are. By that token, the comparative peanuts the first Terminator cost means it’s still his finest work. A truly stunning slice of science fiction time travel techno horror – lean, mean, thrilling and with emotional punch to boot. Also by far Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most iconic role, brilliantly supporting by Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn. However, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, despite the bigger budget, is almost as good, and features groundbreaking computer generated special effects and astonishing action set pieces. This time a second Terminator appears, in the form of Robert Patrick, and – in a brilliantly ironic twist – Hamilton herself almost becomes a Terminator of sorts.

Favourite Line (in both films): “Come with me if you want to live.”

37. Doctor Strangelove: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1965) – Quite possibly the greatest black comedy ever made (the other contender being Kind Hearts and Coronets), Stanley Kubrick’s scathing satire treats the Cold War – rightly – as material for farce. Peter Sellers is truly extraordinary in his three roles, and the speech where he is on the phone to a drunk Russian President making polite conversation whilst trying to tell him that American planes are about to drop nuclear weapons on his country is nothing short of side-splitting.

Favourite Line: “If you don’t get the President of the United States on that phone, you’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.”

36. Dances with Wolves (1990) – Kevin Costner’s magnificent epic is a deceptively simple tale of a Yankee soldier who befriends a Sioux tribe on the frontier, and slowly becomes one of them. Stunning performances and set pieces abound, and the film is set to one of John Barry’s very best music scores. There’s a surprising amount of humour too, as well as a powerful, tear-jerking finale.

Favourite Line: “I am Wind In His Hair. Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?”

35. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) – This astonishingly dark comedy, about a man murdering his way to becoming a Duke, is both hysterically funny and a scathing condemnation of a class system that punishes virtue and rewards cruelty. Alec Guinness in a tour-de-force plays every single one of Dennis Price’s victims (even the women).

Favourite Line: “I shot an arrow in the air. She fell to Earth in Berkeley Square.”

34. Doctor Zhivago (1965) – This is the film that introduced me to the directorial genius that was David Lean (at the age of nine). One of the things I love about the story is that it isn’t political. Instead it shows the appalling human cost of the Russian revolution by letting the atrocities speak for themselves. Against all of this is the monumentally tragic tale of the eponymous Zhivago and the two women he loves (the real tragedy comes from the fact that whilst he does love his wife, he loves his mistress even more). It’s worth noting that this was also the first film I saw that had an unhappy ending, and it had a huge impact on me for that reason too. The cinematography is truly stunning (it really, really needs a cinema), and the cast – Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay et al – are all wonderful.

Favourite Line: “Wouldn’t it have been lovely if we’d met before?”/“I think we may go mad if we think about all that.”/“I shall always think about it.”

33. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) – Probably the funniest film I have ever seen. Certainly, I will never forget the first time I saw it. I laughed so much I was in physical pain afterwards. You know you’re in trouble when the opening credits alone are so hysterically funny you are weeping and falling off your seat before the main story even begins. What more is there to say? The Monty Python crew’s send-up of the King Arthur legends is – for me – their finest hour.

Favourite Line: “You must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with…a herring!”

32. Chinatown (1974) – Roman Polanski’s greatest film is also a strong contender for the finest screenplay ever written (by Robert Towne). This exceptional thriller is so much more than film noir private detective story. It has understated but profound things to say about greed, corruption and the political situation at the time it was made (Watergate casts a dark shadow over the entire plot). Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are both brilliant (especially in the scene where Dunaway’s terrible secret is revealed), and John Huston makes a hideously evil villain.

Favourite Line: “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

31. Mary Poppins (1964) – The truly brilliant thing about Mary Poppins (something that also applies to the best work of Pixar) is the way it appeals to adults as well as children for entirely different reasons. Children love the songs, the jumping into chalk paintings, etc, but for adults it’s the poignant character arc of Mr Banks that really tugs at the heartstrings. The “Let’s go fly a kite” finale is an absolutely brilliant metaphor for the pure joy of rediscovering what is truly important in life.

Favourite Line: “Kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts!”

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30. Rear Window (1954) – One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most nerve-shredding pictures is not only a stunning exercise in suspense, but also a fascinating examination of voyeurism and paranoia. Whilst recovering from a broken leg, James Stewart becomes convinced one of his neighbours has murdered his wife and cut her into pieces. After an unforgettable romantic entrance, Grace Kelly joins him in his obsession. The flash-bulb finale is absolutely unforgettable.

Favourite Line: “You know, if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see: you and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife.”

29. Brief Encounter (1945) – There is no such thing as a perfect film, but if there were, this would be a prime candidate. Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond are both married, but fall in love nonetheless, almost by accident, in David Lean’s spare, quietly devastating romantic masterpiece. A combination of Noel Coward’s screenplay, lovely performances, stunning direction, and atmospheric monochrome cinematography adds up to an incredibly potent whole that oozes aching, stiff-upper-lip sadness from every frame, and just gets better with every viewing.

Favourite Line: “There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.”

28. The Truman Show (1998) – This milestone film anticipated reality television and also provided Jim Carrey with what I consider to be his greatest performance. But this isn’t just superbly satisfying entertainment and prophetic satire. Truman’s journey is also an allegorical quest for spiritual salvation, with Ed Harris’s Christof character standing in for the devil. As Christof says, if Truman really wanted to escape, they couldn’t stop him.

Favourite Line: “The last thing I’d ever do is lie to you.”

27. Casablanca (1942) – Another contender (and possibly the one with the strongest case) for the greatest screenplay of all time. Certainly there are lines in this film (“We’ll always have Paris”, “Play it Sam”, “Here’s lookin’ at you kid” etc) that are quoted as much as Shakespeare. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are the former lovers who must put duty over their feelings in this terrific wartime romantic drama, which remains as wonderful now as the twentieth time I saw it.

Favourite Line: “Round up the usual suspects.”

26. High Noon (1952) – My all-time favourite western is a stunningly tense masterpiece from director Fred Zinnemann starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The wait for the killers on the noon train as Cooper’s cowardly friends desert him unfolds in real time, but for once this gimmick actually works and the building of suspense is phenomenal. High Noon is also an allegorical condemnation of the McCarthy communist witch hunts, so its little wonder John Wayne hated it.

Favourite Line: “You’re asking me to wait an hour to find out if I’m going to be a wife or a widow. I say it’s too long to wait! I won’t do it!”

25. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – David Lean again, this time with his staggering, vast, iconic film about TE Lawrence. Peter O’Toole has never been better, but the desert in all of its splendour is the real star of the picture (without so much as a single CGI pixel). There also ought to be a law against watching it on television. It absolutely has to be seen in a cinema and on a huge screen.

Favourite Line: “Of course it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

24. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – My favourite musical is both a wonderful romance and a fascinating insight into what happened in Hollywood with the coming of sound. Memorable songs galore, not just Gene Kelly in the famous title track, but also Donald O’Conner’s brilliant Make ‘em laugh routine, You are my lucky star with Debbie Reynolds, and many others. Sheer joy from start to finish.

Favourite Line: “She can’t act. She can’t dance. She can’t sing. A triple threat.”

23. Paths of Glory (1957) – This is not just an anti-war film. Nor is it merely an attack on the class system that contributed to the unfairness and misery of the First World War. It is, at its heart, a scathing condemnation of the military mentality itself – a mentality that in this case enables a foolishly ambitious French general to randomly select soldiers to be tried and shot for cowardice after the failure of an ill-conceived attack on an impregnable German position. The battle scenes are brilliantly realised, Kirk Douglas gives his best ever performance, and every frame of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece seethes with anger.

Favourite Line: “There are days I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one of them.”

22. Bambi (1942) – In my view, the greatest of the early Disney features. The quality of the animation remains staggering, and the death of Bambi’s mother (“Your mother can’t be with you anymore”) is still one of the most traumatising, childhood defining moments in cinema history. Great supporting characters, especially Thumper the rabbit, and the forest fire finale is terrific.

Favourite Line: “I was talking to myself about you the other day. We were wondering what became of you.”

21. Vertigo (1958) – As far as I’m concerned this is infinitely more disturbing than Psycho, in that it deals with something all too human: destructive romantic obsession. On a first viewing, there is a sense that Hitchcock has let the cat out of the bag too early, but on repeated viewings one can see that this was a very wise choice, as it allows far more emotional investment in the characters instead of the usual attempts to second guess what the answer to the big mystery will be. An extraordinary work in that it is both a superb studio product with a big star (James Stewart in a career best performance) and a very personal work for Hitchcock. Great Bernard Herrmann score too.

Favourite Line: “Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”

Check back tomorrow for the numbers 20 to 1.

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