Concluding my countdown of my 100 Favourite films (click here for the criteria)…
20 – 1:
20. Jaws (1975) – This classic apparently got a PG rating (or more accurately an “A” rating in the UK, before “A” became “PG) on the basis that psychologists concluded it would be more likely to disturb adults rather than children. As a child, I thought this was nothing more than a first-rate adventure story, but as an adult I think it’s both horrifying and upsetting (especially the death of the young boy early in the film – a very dramatic and brave inclusion). This perhaps indicates that the censors got it right. Anyway, Spielberg’s water-level direction is nothing short of genius, the cast are brilliant, and John Williams’s iconic score is the icing on the cake. This is also an example of a film that is vastly superior to the book it is based on. Oh, and it’s got my all-time favourite jump-out-of-your-skin shock.
Favourite Line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
19. Black Narcissus (1946) – Sexually repressed nuns go mad in the Himalayas. Well, perhaps that’s oversimplifying it a bit, but this is a truly astonishing piece of cinema, and my favourite Powell/Pressburger collaboration. It’s also visually stunning, all the more remarkable considering it was almost entirely shot on sound stages. The climax is as frightening as anything in The Exorcist, yet for many years it carried a U certificate (since upgraded to PG).
Favourite Line: “Do you think it’s a good thing to let her feel important?”/“Spare her some of your own importance…if you can.”
18. The Iron Giant (1999) – My favourite animated film of all time is this criminally underrated gem from Brad Bird (who also directed The Incredibles). Very loosely based on Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man, it was a huge flop on its original release (my wife and I saw it in a virtually empty cinema). Set at the height of the McCarthy communist paranoia of the 1950s, it tells the simple but superb story of lonely boy Hogarth who befriends a gigantic amnesiac robot from outer space. Unfortunately, when the government find out about the giant, they think its Russian and want to shoot first and ask questions later. Since the giant is programmed to defend itself, it transforms into a War of the Worlds type killing machine and goes on a rampage, with Hogarth trying to persuade the army to stop attacking it. This is a brilliant, brilliant film because for once the story doesn’t encourage children to cheer at violence. The moral – about choosing good over evil – is understated but clear, and as the film builds to an inevitably tragic climax, it’s a heartless soul indeed who won’t complain of something in their eye.
Favourite Line: “You stay. I go. No following.”
17. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – The greatest science fiction film ever made, although admittedly something of a marmite film. It has been criticised for being cold, obscure, surreal and lacking in humanity – wrongly in my view. It is, actually, a profoundly human film (ironically, since the strongest character is HAL the homicidal computer). Kubrick’s genius was to tackle the question of are-we-alone-in-the-Universe as an intellectual rather than melodramatic one. A truly unforgettable piece of pure cinema (even if you hate it), that simply must be seen in a cinema to be properly appreciated.
Favourite Line: “My mind is going…I can feel it…”
16. North by Northwest (1959) – My favourite Hitchcock film is the ultimate “wrong man” story, as mild-mannered advertising executive Cary Grant gets mistaken for a spy. Twists and turns ensue, along with some of Hitchcock’s most memorable set-pieces including the Mount Rushmore finale and the crop-duster plane attack (the latter absolutely has to be seen in the cinema to be properly appreciated). Eva Marie Saint is wonderful as the is-she/isn’t-she-a-villain romantic interest, and Bernard Herrmann provides a terrific music score.
Favourite Line: “I’m an advertising man, not a red herring!”
15. Blade Runner (1982) – Ridley Scott again, this time with my favourite (as opposed to the greatest) science fiction film of all time. This is also a rare case where the post-release tinkering was actually worth it. Five separate cuts of the film exist, and incredibly the most recent is the best version. Every time I watch this massively influential, visually stunning masterpiece, I notice something new. As Harrison Ford tracks down escaped replicants and ponders what it means to be human (as all good science fiction stories should), the film builds to a stunning climax and that extraordinary, emotionally devastating “time to die” speech by Rutger Hauer.
Favourite Line: “All those moments will be lost, like tears in rain.”
14. Double Indemnity (1944) – The quintessential film noir, and my favourite Billy Wilder film. Insurance salesman Fred MacMurray conspires with the ultimate femme-fatale Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband and get rich on the insurance claim. But shrewd claims manager Edward G Robinson unravels their plans. Great performances, a razor-sharp script, and brooding atmosphere all add up to a first-rate thriller.
Favourite Line: “I couldn’t hear my footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
13. Cinema Paradiso (1988) – A favourite of anyone who has ever fallen in love with the cinema, and I am no exception. This simple, poignant story of a Sicilian war orphan and his friendship with the local cinema projectionist is funny, dramatic and heartbreaking, especially in the longer cut which expands on the latter part of the story, explaining what became of the girl Toto fell in love with (some claim the shorter cut is better – wrongly in my opinion). The characters are wonderful, and Ennio Morricone’s achingly beautiful music is my personal favourite amongst his many brilliant scores. Also, the “kisses montage” finale is nostalgic tear-jerker par excellence.
Favourite Line: “Life isn’t like in the movies. Life is much harder.”
12. It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) – The perennial Christmas favourite, and Frank Capra’s greatest film was, incredibly, not a big hit on original release. Yet years of television screenings and re-releases have given it the reputation it so richly deserves. James Stewart is brilliant, particularly in the darker moments, such as when he irrationally rails at his family. The parallel universe sequence, where he is shown by an angel what his hometown would have been like had he never existed, is also superbly realised, so that by the time the punch-the-air, feelgood finale arrives, it really feels earned. At the risk of sounding trite and patronising, this film is really good for you.
Favourite Line: “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
11. The Godfather/The Godfather Part II (1972, 1974) – Two stone cold masterpieces. In the first film, what is quite brilliant is the way we are asked to admire the Corleone family for their sense of honour and family loyalty. Yet these are criminals and murderers. It is a superb piece of audience manipulation on the part of director Francis Ford Coppola. The cast are equally superb, not just the Oscar winning Marlon Brando, but all the others – James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall et al – and especially Al Pacino. The screenplay is loaded with classic lines, and this is another example of a film that is much better than the book it is based on. From the opening wedding to the horses-head-in-a-bed, the romantic Sicilian interlude, the tollbooth shooting, and the bone chilling finale (the massacre intercut with the baptism), this is absolutely gripping stuff.
As for Part II, for once, the sequel is even better than the original. It isn’t so much a gangster movie as a chilling study of power and corruption. A film that features my favourite performances from both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro is nothing short of miraculous, though for me Pacino wins by a nose. His turn is absolutely electrifying, all the more so because this time we aren’t convinced that what he is doing is for the good of his family. Nor, I think, does Francis Ford Coppola intend us to be convinced. Everything about this film is darker and colder than the first. Take for instance the opening party. Compared with the colourful, fun-filled wedding that opened the original, it is full of bitterness, recrimination and a sense of impending doom. As Michael ruthlessly eliminates his enemies this story is brilliantly contrasted with the younger Vito Corleone’s rise to power at the turn of the century, adding fascinating layers of irony to the tale.
Favourite Line (from The Godfather Part II): “I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart!”
10. The Lives of Others (2006) – This riveting story of a ruthless secret policeman rediscovering his humanity in 1980s East Berlin is a both a powerful affirmation of my belief in the power of redemption and a brilliant condemnation of communist ideology. An amazing performance from the late Ulrich Muhe and brilliant direction from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (quite a mouthful) deserves special praise, though the film is outstanding at every other level too. No other recent film has affected me as deeply and profoundly. I vividly recall walking out of the cinema speechless with admiration – not something that happens often. Anyone who believes the ludicrous if-you’ve-done-nothing-wrong-you’ve-nothing-to-fear argument should be forced to watch this. It is a film that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Favourite line: “To think that people like you once ran a country.”
9. The Remains of the Day (1993) – Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson long for each other as they dutifully serve Nazi appeasing Edward Fox in the 1930s. As far as I’m concerned, the best story of unrequited love in cinema history. It would be almost too heartbreaking to bear if it weren’t for the gentle humour and wit contained throughout, as Hopkins’s absurdly repressed character gradually moves the audience from laughter to tears. If there was a film to epitomise the expression “sad is happy for deep people” this would be it.
Favourite Line: “We may never meet again, that is why I am permitting myself to be so personal, if you’ll forgive me.”
8. Schindler’s List (1993) – Incredible though it may seem, there are some pseudo-intellectual types who condemn Schindler’s List because in making a film about the Holocaust, rather than tell a story about the millions who were killed, Steven Spielberg chose to tell a story about a (comparative) few who were saved. That is a completely ridiculous argument, because the story of Oskar Schindler – the businessman who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazi death camps by employing them in his factories, systematically bankrupting himself in the process – absolutely deserves to be told and Spielberg told it brilliantly.
Shot in monochrome, the film remains every bit as powerful today, and every bit as relevant. Liam Neeson has never been better, and Ben Kingsley provides superb support. But the real revelation here is Ralph Fiennes as odious commandant Amon Goeth. Spielberg took real-life monster Goeth and made him one of the screens most memorable villains because he refused to make him a one-dimensional Nazi thug. There are moments here – especially in his treatment of his beautiful Jewish maid – where flashes of humanity buried deep beneath the demonic Nazi ideology struggle to get out, but are then stifled again by the evil that he has become. Such characterisation makes his monstrous actions all the more diabolical, and this certainly isn’t a film that shies away from Nazi brutality.
Indeed, there is no editorialising or comment on the many horrifying sequences – such as the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto – simply because the atrocities speak for themselves. Spielberg’s restless, often hand-held direction was a huge change of pace from his previous work, and indeed marked a change in his style that characterised many of his subsequent films.
This is one of the most riveting, chilling, upsetting, and almost unbearably moving experiences I have ever had in a cinema (I saw it five times on its initial release). The overall message (one man can make a difference) is delivered with a power and authority unmatched in film history, and there are moments and images here that will stay with me for the rest of my life. In particular, the girl-in-the-red-coat sequence and its subsequent payoff is emotionally shattering, and Neeson’s final breakdown as he laments how he could have saved more has the power to make a paving slab weep.
Favourite Line: “This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. For this…(weeps) I could have got one more person…And I didn’t! And I…I didn’t!”
7. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) – Tolkien’s masterpiece, comprising The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, is also Peter Jackson’s greatest triumph.
Every single aspect of the filmmaking is brilliant – from Fran Walsh and Pippa Boyens’s screenplays to Jackson’s innovative direction, the staggeringly beautiful landscapes (New Zealand doubling for Middle Earth) and the absolutely perfect casting. Watching this film felt like meeting old friends, and every actor involved – Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, John Rhys-Davis, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Mirando Otto, Bernard Hill, David Wenham, John Noble, and even Orlando Bloom – simply are the characters they are portraying.
Add to that the phenomenal visual effects, costume design, set design, art direction, sound effects, editing, and Howard Shore’s brilliant music (the best score of its kind this side of Star Wars), and you have a landmark in fantasy cinema. In scene after magnificent scene, classic moments from the books are vividly brought to life – from the rustic beauty of the Shire and the frightening appearance of the Black Riders, to the thrilling chase in the Mines of Moria, the mystical realms of Rivendell and Lothlorien, the surrealism of the Ents, the fierce battle of Helm’s Deep, the dazzling white city of Minas Tirith, the armies of the dead, the horror of Shelob’s lair, the fires of the land of Mordor… Really I could go on and on.
As with the novel, The Lord of the Rings films will grip you, thrill you and frighten you. They will make you laugh, gasp, cry and think, but ultimately, the melancholy of a passing era will break your heart. As Gandalf says in the finale, “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”
Favourite Line: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Arnor. The dark fire shall not avail you, flame of Udun! Go back to the shadow. You shall not pass!”
6. Back to the Future (1985) – “A teenage boy goes back in time and his Mum falls in love with him.” As movie pitches go, it’s brilliant. Robert Zemeckis’s greatest film remains one the closest things to a perfect movie. I saw it twice on original release, countless times since, and despite knowing the script backwards, it remains a hugely satisfying watch every time.
The characters are wonderful (spot on casting and great performances), the special effects support rather than dominate the story, and the overall effect is exciting, funny and touching. Michael J Fox was born to play Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd remains my all-time-favourite mad scientist. But for me the heart of the story has always been the plight of George McFly (played by the excellent and largely unsung Crispin Glover), who learns to stand up to the bullies and thus break the curse that has plagued his family for generations.
George McFly is a character close to my heart for a number of reasons, not just because of his love for science fiction, but because of his ambition to be a writer. The bit when he punches Biff remains a cheer-out-loud highlight, and the literally cliffhanging climax is as thunderously exciting as ever. Without a doubt, the best time travel film of all time, and an absolute classic. If you don’t like this film, then quite honestly I recommend seeking urgent medical help.
Favourite Line: “Are you telling me that my Mum has the hots for me?!”
5. Witness (1985) – As far as I’m concerned, Peter Weir is the most underrated director in the world today. His early films – Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli – remain Australian classics, but with Witness he made his first major Hollywood studio film. There are strong arguments that other films he made subsequently (such as The Truman Show) are superior, but this remains my personal favourite.
Overall, this is a highly unusual thriller. An Amish boy witnesses a murder in a Philadelphia train station, and the policeman investigating the case is then forced to hide undercover in the Amish community with him and his mother when it becomes clear the perpetrators are his corrupt superiors. At this point, the film becomes more a love story and a documentary-type drama about the Amish. There are hugely memorable moments – such as the iconic barn-raising scene and the bit where the mother and the policeman dance to a song on the car radio (which positively sizzles with romantic chemistry).
Weir’s direction is simply brilliant, and Harrison Ford gives a career-best performance (come to think of it, Weir always seems to coax career-best performances from his leads – Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Jeff Bridges in Fearless, Russell Crowe in Master and Commander). But the real reason Witness means as much to me as it does is because as a child it taught me valuable lessons about the destructive nature of violence. Since it had a 15 certificate, I was too young to see it in the cinema, but I saw it on video a year or two later and it had a tremendous impact on me. Up until that point, my experience of screen violence was largely the consequence-free James Bond variety, but Witness forced me to confront the ripple effect a single act of violence has – whether it’s the gruesome murder at the start, or the scene later in the film when Ford confronts some tourists who are picking on the Amish for their pacifist stance.
On my initial viewing, I was inwardly cheering Ford on when he beat up the tourists, but of course this act leads to him being discovered. Shortly afterwards, during the tense, western-style conclusion, there is a brilliant moment where Ford is yelling at the villain (who has the mother hostage) and the villain is yelling back. Their dialogue is completely incomprehensible as a result, which is perfect, because the scene is shown from the point of view of the terrified mother. As an Amish woman who has turned her back on violence, such actions are incomprehensible. It is very telling that in the end it is not violence but the Amish community itself that causes the villain to surrender, because at this point there are simply too many witnesses. One is forced to consider that perhaps the Amish have a point with their pacifism.
Favourite Line: “You be careful out among the English.”
4. Great Expectations (1946) – This story has been adapted many times, but none have ever come close to the atmospheric brilliance of the David Lean version. And I believe no version ever will. One of the greatest films ever made, and without question the best adaptation of a Dickens novel (actually, for me it’s the best adaptation of any book ever).
Lean directs with incredible flair (aided and abetted by Guy Green’s vivid monochrome cinematography), and the cast – which includes John Mills, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons and Francis L Sullivan (playing my favourite character Jaggers) – are all brilliant, with the notable exception of Valerie Hobson. Whilst being perfectly good as the adult Estella, Hobson was apparently cast as a result of nepotism (she was the producer’s niece) and I think by comparison someone like Vivien Leigh could have been electrifying.
That trick missed, everything else is nothing less than astonishing; from the terrifying opening in the graveyard (one the most influential single scenes in cinema history), to the vivid, cathartic finale as Pip confronts the demons of his past. For me, several scenes carry a powerful emotional charge, but none as much as the moment when Joseph Gargery (the brilliant and alas largely forgotten Bernard Miles) welcomes Pip home after he awakens from his coma, despite how appallingly Pip treated him in his misguided quest to be a gentleman.
Some criticise the unambiguously happy ending (the novel is more a mixed bag), but I think it’s perfect. It underscores what is for me (in addition to the obvious points about class, Victorian hypocrisy etc) the entire point of the story – the chilling power of bitterness and our ability to overcome it if we choose.
Favourite Line: “What larks!”
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – As far as I’m concerned, the single greatest pure adventure film in cinema history, and the best of the Indiana Jones films. There are many reasons for this, not just the brilliant direction of Steven Spielberg and terrific performances by Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman and others, but also Lawrence Kasdan’s excellent screenplay (from George Lucas’s original story).
The opening sequence alone is staggering as the character of Indy is superbly established, not so much as an archaeologist, but a grave robber who trusts the wrong people. This thrilling escalation of creepy crawlies, booby traps, hidden treasure, betrayal and escapades is merely a prelude for what follows. In aping (and vastly surpassing) the cliffhanger serials of their youth, Spielberg and Lucas find, in the Ark of the Covenant, the ultimate “MacGuffin”.
The many action sequences that follow – including the snake infested Well of Souls and that truck chase – are nothing less than stunning. There is a great sense of humour throughout – where else will you see a monkey giving a Hitler salute? Yet it is the darker side of Indy’s character that makes him so memorable here. In the sequels he is a straightforward hero but in this he is just as obsessed as the villain with finding the Ark – something that twice causes him to abandon Marion.
John Williams contributes yet another of his fantastic scores, and the CGI free stunt work and special effects are phenomenal. If anything, this film looks better today than it did thirty years ago. As for the finale, as Spielberg said, nothing is scarier than the Old Testament God. As the Nazi’s are struck down, melted and exploded by the wrath of the Almighty, one is reminded of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indy and Marion wisely opt to keep their eyes shut, whilst the villains are turned into the proverbial pillars of salt. Absolutely fantastic stuff.
Favourite Line: “I’m making this up as I go.”
2. Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) – The Star Wars franchise later threw up prequels (disappointing), sequels (very good so far), spin-offs and TV series (a mixed bag), but nothing matches the peerless original trilogy. Of all the films on this list, I have watched George Lucas’s fantasy classics (yes fantasy, not science fiction as many mistakenly claim) more than any.
Taking them film by film:
Star Wars (I refuse to refer to it as A New Hope)
I could probably recite not just the dialogue, but the sound effects and music cues as well. Yet still, I would happily watch this film again…and again…and again. Star Wars isn’t just a film anymore. It’s a rite of passage for children and a poignant reminder for adults of their heroic childhood dreams.
The characters – Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, C3P0, R2D2 et al – are arguably more iconic than any in cinema history. The strange thing is that the bad acting/dialogue moments and other goofs just make the film even better. “I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” has to be one of the most ridiculous lines, and the bit when the Stormtrooper bangs his head is priceless (it got a round of applause at the cinema screening I attended during the 1997 reissue, since it was attended by people who knew the film backwards). Yet in spite of this, the visual and sound effects remain astonishing.
From that stunning opening shot to the edge-of-the-seat Death Star battle, the story is every bit as riveting as it was in 1977. It has thrills, spills, laughs and just enough gravitas to give it a serious edge when necessary. After all, this is classic David and Goliath stuff, and the epic finale – where the mystical Force trumps reliance on technology – speaks volumes to a cynical audience who deep down really want to believe that good will triumph over evil.
John Williams’s magnificent music score is merely the icing on the cake. There is a good argument to be made that even if you hate it, Star Wars is actually the most influential and important film in cinema history, dividing it into two epochs in a kind of BC/AD way. It summarised much of cinema to that point – 1930s Flash Gordon serials, The Wizard of Oz, westerns, Japanese Samurai movies, etc – as well as literary influences like The Lord of the Rings and the Arthur legends, repackaged them in a radical, groundbreaking way that turned it into something unique, and the result became so influential that the industry was transformed (for better and worse). But for me, the most important thing is the simple, exhilarating thrill I feel whenever those magical lines appear on the screen: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Favourite Line: “No reward is worth this!”
The Empire Strikes Back
Generally regarded as the best Star Wars film, and I agree. It has the best direction, this time from Irvin Kershner (George Lucas takes a story and executive producer credit). It has the best screenplay, from Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Said screenplay features the best romantic moments and the influence of Big Sleep scribe Brackett is particularly felt in Han and Leia’s screwball comedy style banter (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?”).
The film also features the best of John Williams’s landmark Star Wars scores. Here Williams introduces the iconic Imperial March which brilliantly demonstrates his genius in the way he takes a single theme and crafts endless, ingenious variations of it. Away from the music, Empire also features the best monsters (the Hoth Wampa is a personal favourite of mine), the best new characters (Yoda, Lando Calrissian), the best locations (Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City), the best acting (even Mark Hamill is good), the best lightsabre fight (Luke and Vader’s climactic face-off), and arguably the best action set-pieces (the barnstorming AT-AT attack and the thrilling asteroid chase).
Empire set a template for these kinds of sequels – ie make it darker, more complex, but don’t forget to leaven the darkness with a good sense of humour. Yet Empire is braver. Empire dares to pull the rug from under its young audience with the greatest plot twist of all time, leaving many narrative threads (such as the fate of Han Solo) dangling as the end credits roll. Someone once described Star Wars as the equivalent of an excellent though naïve childhood, and The Empire Strikes Back as that difficult painful time when after leaving home you realise life can be tough, complicated and messy. In terms of how each film feels, it’s a fairly good summary.
Favourite Line: “I am your father.”
Return of the Jedi
The final chapter of the Star Wars saga is only marginally less brilliant than its predecessors, but not for the reasons generally given (ie Ewoks, who contrary to popular belief enhance the David and Goliath element of the saga with their triumph of primitive but innovative weapons over faceless technology and thus underscore the entire point of the story). The only nit I can pick in this film is that Princess Leia’s relationship to Luke is revealed rather clumsily. For this reason there is actually an argument for someone coming to Star Wars for the first time to watch the saga in this order: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back then go back to watch the vastly inferior prequels in order to see the birth of Leia at the end of Revenge of the Sith – a far more dramatically satisfying way of revealing who she really is – before finishing with Return of the Jedi.
That nit aside, this remains absolutely wonderful stuff and a hugely satisfying conclusion. With monsters and space battles galore, the special effects are truly eye-popping, and of all the Star Wars films this one above all must be seen in a cinema (for the speeder bike sequence alone). The space battles (done with models rather than CGI) remain the most visually stunning ever put on film even now, almost thirty years later. But the emotional heart of the film is provided by the epic confrontation between the Emperor, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. The stunning finale, as Vader finally turns the tables on his evil master, is as unexpected and punch-the-air triumphant as ever. At the same time, the tragically high price for redemption is deeply felt. Luke framed against Vader’s funeral pyre remains the saga’s most poignant moment.
Favourite Line: “Just once, let me look on you with my own eyes.”
And my number one film…. (drum roll):
1. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, the tale of a little lost alien, remains the defining cinematic moment in my life. I vividly recall seeing it aged 7, during its original release, and it had an incalculable impact on me. Even without the personal baggage this film has for me, it is an undisputed classic of cinema. Leaving aside how iconic, influential and successful it was, the craftsmanship involved remains nothing less than outstanding on every artistic level almost thirty years on. There are many personal reasons why this is my number one choice. Here are just ten (spoiler warning in case there are any poor unfortunates who have not seen this film).
When I first saw this, I remember thinking how impressive it was that the opening featured no dialogue at all. It is a wordless, visual, visceral experience designed to make the audience feel the terror and helplessness of the little alien as it is pursued by loud humans with glaring torches and jangling keys. I was desperate for the alien to reach the spacecraft in time, but then of course there would have been no story. Spielberg’s direction is nothing less than superb, and part of his genius here (and throughout the film) is framing his shots at a child’s eye level (akin to cartoons such as Tom and Jerry).
“Dad would believe me.”
As someone who happily has never experienced a broken home, this was the film that introduced me to the fact that not all children are similarly blessed. I kept wondering where Elliot’s father was, until the dinner scene early in the film where it is revealed that he has left with another woman. The scene is brilliantly scripted by Melissa Mathison (who incidentally also wrote the hugely underrated children’s film The Black Stallion – well worth checking out), but it is immediately clear that this is about the divorce of Spielberg’s parents; something he seems to have been trying to get over throughout his entire career. Another brilliant thing about this scene – as Elliot tries to convince his family that there really was an alien in their backyard – is it shows children using anatomical insults they are too young to understand (to highly comical effect), before the conversation turns on the heartbreaking line of dialogue above: “Dad would believe me.”
“How do you explain school to higher intelligence?”
This brilliantly perceptive line summarises my own feelings both then and now about the insanity of school culture. The scenes that follow are absolutely hilarious. ET gets drunk, and because of the telepathic bond between ET and Elliot, Elliot is similarly intoxicated. This leads the fantastic moment where Elliot decides to free all the frogs that are about to be dissected in his biology lesson, whilst at the same time plucking up the courage to kiss the prettiest girl in his class. Oh, and this also leads to another brilliant comedy moment – one that speaks volumes about the childlike perspective vs the adult perspective; when Elliot’s mum is so wrapped up in grown-up busyness that she is literally unable to see a drunken alien staggering around her kitchen. On a spiritual level it’s also a bit of a Mary/Martha moment, since Gertie is trying to introduce her Mum to ET.
“ET phone home.”
In the end, it’s the simplicity of just wanting to go home that tugs on the heartstrings throughout the story. That universal human need is something everyone can relate to, and perhaps accounts for the film’s phenomenal success. Yet it’s also a film about prejudice. ET is not immediately attractive or cute, but he is, as Spielberg puts it “a creature only a mother could love”. Although the message is understated, there is definitely something inherent in the material about not judging by appearance. Certainly when he first appeared onscreen, I initially found ET quite frightening, but then as the relationship develops between him and Elliot, that all changed.
There has been a great deal made of the Christ allegories within the story, and that spiritual factor is certainly something that has drawn me to the film time and time again. ET is a being from another world that heals, both physically and emotionally. The scene where Elliot cuts his finger and ET heals him with a fingertip epitomises this brilliantly. Later of course, ET experiences his own death and resurrection.
“We’re sick…I think we’re dying…”
The moment the NASA scientists finally track down ET is one of the most traumatic things I have ever seen on film. To have the safe, familiar atmosphere of one’s home violated and transformed into a nightmarish antiseptic world of hazmat outfits, plastic sheets and invasive scientific equipment is truly terrifying, and this aspect of the screenplay was nothing less than genius. The first time I saw the film it was in fact so traumatic that I actually blacked that part of the film out of my memory. I can vividly recall everything that came before and afterwards, but that bit is missing. It was only years later – when I saw the film on VHS – that I was able to rediscover those truly horrifying moments.
“He came to me too.”
There is a moment late in the film where we finally discover the scientist who wears the jangling keys (who is literally called “Keys” in the credits). Although depicted as an authoritarian menace up to this point, Keys is ultimately a kind, good man who has been wishing for an extra-terrestrial visit all his life. There is something about his character that as an adult I find adds nuance to the story. He is there for those in the audience who long for the lost innocence of childhood and who weary of a seemingly cynical, uncaring world. He is there for those who ask the question: Is this all that there is? Is there nothing more?
“Would you like the flower?”
After the death of ET – a sequence that brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it – there is a brilliant moment where after saying a heartfelt farewell, Elliot notices the plant pot flower coming back to life. Suspecting ET is alive again, he discovers this is true then amid his euphoria has to hide the fact from the scientists by pretending to cry. Thinking Elliot is beside himself with grief, Keys says to Elliot “Would you like the flower?” The entire sequence is exhibit A in Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to manipulate an audience by having them cry one minute and laugh the next. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that the performances of the children – not just Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore but also the often overlooked Robert McNaughton – are the best child performances I have ever seen in a film.
“Can’t he just beam up?”
The final chase with the bikes, as ET and the children rush to the rendezvous with the spaceship, isn’t merely a thrilling climax. It culminates in what is, as far as I’m concerned, the single most exhilarating moment in cinema history: the bikes escaping pursuit by flying off into the sunset. Adjectives like magnificent and soaring fall pathetically short of describing the emotions experienced. They also fall pathetically short of describing the utter, utter brilliance of John Williams’s Oscar winning music score, which also happens to be my favourite film score of all time.
“I’ll be right here.”
It’s mostly because of the final scene that ET is frequently cited as the most tear-jerking film of all time, but it’s certainly an “up-cry”. Even though ET has to say goodbye to the children and go home, this is emotionally satisfying and, above all, right. What’s more the appearance of a rainbow as the spaceship flies off is a beautiful and appropriately hopeful image indicating that Elliot’s experience has changed him for the better. As for me, I was scarred for life, but I actually believe it is good and healthy to at least once in childhood see a film that has that effect. ET definitely did it for me.
And my favourite line? I think I’ll have to go with: “How do you explain school to higher intelligence?”