I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about lists. I love writing them, and sharing my opinion of them, but it’s been a while since I’ve written a list I’m truly proud of and have full faith in. My aim with this next list, which I’ve simply titled ‘Ten Movies…’ is to create a list as close to perfection as possible, and also as simple as possible. A list of film recommendations that is not towering or seems impossible to check off; just ten movies. What do these films have in common? They are the ten movies I believe every single person who loves cinema should see at least once in their lifetime. Now, I set myself some hard rules for compiling this list: it wasn’t just going to be ten movies I absolutely love. It’s going to be ten completely different films, from different genres and countries, and never more than one film from a single director. No two films can be too similar, and there is a fair mixture between films I absolutely love and some I actually don’t like as much, but still have full faith in and the complete belief that they need to be seen. This list wasn’t written overnight; it took time, and a lot of work. I originally had fifty six movies, which I cut down to ten, and I won’t reveal any of the films that got cut out, because I don’t want you to feel pressured to see those as well. Here are just ten movies that everyone, and I must emphasise everyone, who has even a passing interest in film, should see.
Note: I haven’t seen anywhere near every movie that has been widely described as great. I have seen perhaps only a few more than a thousand films that I can actually remember viewing, and each week I am seeing more movies I love. I’ve figured out that on average, I see one new film each month that makes it onto my top 100 movies list. So of course, over time, I will see more films that might become eligible for this list. But as important as this list is to me (which is very much), I won’t be updating it for a long time, so whether you’re reading this on the day it was posted or years afterwards, I still want you to think that no matter how many films I’ve seen since writing this, that each choice is still valid and to be taken seriously. Anyway, now that that’s all over with, on with the list!
In alphabetical order, because any kind of ranking is just idiotic:
Apocalypse Now (1979)
I’d like to clarify that this is not the idiotic and unnecessary ‘Redux’ version released a few years back. This is the original, 150-minute film. If you can only find the Redux version, then look up on the internet what new scenes were included and make sure you skip them as they are only unnecessary and mindnumbingly boring. But the original film itself, Francis Ford Coppola’s fourth masterpiece of one single decade, is one of the most powerful and realistic recreations of war and its debilitating effect on humanity. There are few films more powerful than this, or more breathtaking.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
I did not cry or feel as emotionally moved as I thought I should the first time I saw Robert Bresson’s greatest movie, about a donkey who may or may not be a saint, and is a Christlike figure in the amount of suffering he endures. But Bresson wisely never makes us feel empathetic for the donkey. There are no anthropomorphised moments when the donkey realizes the situation around him and fights against it. He simply accepts that the world is beyond his comprehension and there is nothing he can do about it. Jean-Luc Godard gave the film more praise than he has ever given any film, calling it ‘the world in 90 minutes.’ I cannot improve on that.
The Best of Youth (2003)
At more than six hours, this is the longest film on the list, but also the shortest. It is exhilarating, expressive, amazing, beautiful, and full of worldly wonder. The constantly moving and always easy to follow plot makes it fun and exciting, and believe it or not, it is a film you simply do not want to end, and at almost 400 minutes, it does its best to fulfill that wish. The characters are engaging, wonderful and empathetic, and the film really does make it feel like we are following them through their whole lives. It is only four decades, but in six hours we feel like we are witnessing every second of those years with the characters, feeling their excitement in the fun times, their anger in the darker times, and the spinning wheel of life turning steadily.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Like with Apocalypse Now, I must clarify the difference between the two existing versions of this film. There is a 182 minute version, and a 312 minute one. As daunting as the 312 minute version of the film was to me, I simply cannot stop recommending it enough. There are people who, like with the above film on this list, The Best of Youth, will complain that they don’t have the time, energy or effort. That’s bullshit. Everyone has the strength to sit through a film of any length, as long as the movie engages, excites and rivets them. That is exactly what the full version of Fanny and Alexander does, to say the least. It is the most visually impressive film I have ever seen and probably ever will see, and the characters are so well-developed and get such generous amounts of screen time that we really begin to feel with them, to understand them, and to love them. Is there really anything more you could ask of a film?
Some of you will know the story of how this film was made. Some of you will not. For those who don’t, a considerable portion of the film consists of a man who, with the help of an entire crew of jungle natives and his own acquaintances, drags a massive ship completely over a mountain, from a river on one side to another river on the other. The director Werner Herzog actually did this in real life for the film. This was a mammoth, nearly impossible task that sounds pretty fucking difficult and was exactly that. The making of this film was so stressful that the documentary behind it, Burden of Dreams, makes the making of Apocalypse Now look like a Disney film. Every second of Fitzcarraldo is loaded with the sweat, energy and dedication required to achieve the goals set out for this film, and the result is indescribably perfect.
I recently had the opportunity to see this on the big screen, and it was one of the three best cinematic experiences of my lifetime, perhaps even the best. The film itself, which carries a highly environmental message which may scare away some, has become famous for its visuals, its soundtrack and above all, its avant-garde style. The entire 80 minute film contains no dialogue, no cast, no script, and the soundtrack is an unending score by Philip Glass. And despite this, it is never boring and constantly absorbing. From simple shots of caveman drawings to the now famous “The Grid” sequence which has made its way into the cinematic hall-of-fame for its beyond impressive show of lights, speed, and cinematography. Koyaanisqatsi is a film unlike any other, and to see it is like standing in the Heavens, if you believe in such a place, and observing the entire planet with one sparing glance.
Night and Fog (1955)
At 30 minutes, this is the shortest film on this list in terms of duration, and ironically it is the most difficult to watch. I have never had more trouble watching such a short film. The first time I saw it was unwisely late at night, as I was restless for hours afterwards and had troublesome dreams. Though the film is most easily seen on the internet, I advise you to watch it on DVD like I did, or even better, in a theatre. I am not going to describe what occurs in the film in any way. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t look it up. Just see it. Keep your eyes on the screen and take in the images you see. Don’t look away. If you look away, you’re almost as bad as those who stood by while the atrocities depicted occurred over and over and over again. Endlessly.
Play Time (1967)
In contrast to Night and Fog, the darkest movie on this list, Jacques Tati’s Play Time is the lightest. I have never seen it in a movie theatre, but it is at the very top of my list of films I want to see on the big screen. Play Time is one of those rare movies where there is something happening in every inch of the frame. Everything is planned, and visually the film is more fun to watch than any other movie I’ve ever seen. People say that you can watch Inception ten times and discover something new each time. Well, with Play Time, you can watch it a hundred times and find new things every single time. That’s no exaggeration. The film is so packed with treats in every shot that watching it is like becoming addicted to a puzzle in a magazine. Every time you read the magazine, you go straight to the puzzle, and even though it’s incredibly difficult to solve, you gain such immense satisfaction just looking at it. That’s exactly what Play Time feels like. No film is more interesting to watch. Oh, and did I mention it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious?
Taste of Cherry (1997)
I spent nearly an hour tossing up between whether to include this film or Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, which both deal with the subject of suicide in different but equally valid and impressive ways. Eventually I decided on Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, and I’ll tell you why. Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most controversial of directors; not because of the subject matter of his movies, or the content of them, but simply because of how he directs them. It’s never been a bad controversy, just one that got a lot of people talking and arguing. Taste of Cherry is the film they argued about. After all, what could be interesting about an Iranian man who we learn nothing about, driving around talking to people and eventually killing himself for an unspecified reason? As it turns out, a lot. The film is the most dialogue-oriented one on this list, and the dialogue is so stunningly written that we sink into it, letting each word overwhelm us. And when the film goes silent, like in the sequence where the protagonist leaves his car and sits down at a construction site, or when he buries himself and the camera shows his wide awake face silent and motionless as a storm rages. And what of the film’s epilogue? Does it ruin the movie? I don’t think so. We have so many films about suicide that end with the poignant yet inevitable death, and Kiarostami’s epilogue is his attempt to try something different, and I liked it.
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
People who know me probably would’ve guessed that Bela Tarr would show up eventually, either in the form of this film or The Turin Horse. Both films are equally astonishing, but I think Werckmeister Harmonies is the film more people are going to appreciate and want to see, and it is also the better film. I went into it knowing next to nothing, and I was in tears after ten minutes. 130 minutes later, I was on the verge of sobbing like a child. Not because the movie is sad, but because it is so human. Despite the fact that many of the characters are lifeless, and almost all of them are emotionally dead by the end, it is a human movie. I cried for those who lost their lives, their sanity, their emotion. I smiled at the moments of raw beauty which are surprisingly often for such an underappreciated film. And I had my eyes transfixed on the screen, breathing and blinking so rarely that you would think I was dead. If there is such a thing as a perfect movie, this is it. My God, this is it.
There. That is my list of the essential ten. I sincerely hope that you’ll rush to your Netflix, your film streaming site, your local movie store or wherever you get your films from, and add the ones you haven’t seen to your list. In the meantime, tell me how many you have seen and what you think of the choices. Thanks!