My 20 fave films

BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - July 28, 2006 - 12:00am
In his May 2006 essay on the greatest American novel of the past quarter-century, New York Times critic A.O. Scott commented on the "deplorable modern mania for ranking, list-making and fabricated competition" that fuels the frenzied obsession media outlets have with pitting art against art to craft supposedly crass headlines that disallow dispute, if only within the publication’s own pages. "Criticism," he said, "should not cede its prickly, qualitative prerogatives to the quantifying urges of sociology or market research."

And yet he goes on to justify, as well as discredit, the list the Times had assembled (the winner by the way was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as expected). You see, it is impossible for any journalist, or person for that matter, not to voice their opinion on what is the "best" or "greatest" or "most important" in a particular niche of pop culture when given the forum. That is why there are hundreds of "best of" movie lists released at the end of every year by magazines and newspapers worldwide (mine included) trumpeting the Best Film of the Year. Inevitably one corner shouts "Brokeback!" and another corner hisses "A History of Violence!" There are the Munich supporters and the Capote clique. The reader is flooded with a thousand and one titles for the best motion picture of the past three hundred and sixty-five days.

When I was asked to write about my 20 favorite films of all time for this anniversary issue, I first glazed over the usual suspects, those all-too-often labeled the best of American cinema: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather. Why not just reprint another AFI list and be done with it? Because this is about my favorites, movies I am permitted to love even for the most personal and ludicrous reasons, I have full authoritative sovereignty over my choices, whether reasonable or otherwise under the tenets of sensibility and/or human integrity.

But more importantly, I believe each person should have their favorite films properly defined. Such a list can serve as an immediate Polaroid of the person’s (forgive me) soul, influenced not necessarily by the trivialities of proficiency but by a completely impalpable impact on the individual. Perhaps this is why 15 of the 20 films on my own list were released relatively recently, in this new millennium; and almost half of them are either set in a high school, or are about teenagers. While I admire the brilliance of Orson Welles, as a 16-year-old I relate much more to, say, Evan Rachel Wood. Though I would like to say I use Cahiers du cinéma as bathroom reading material, I do not. Nor can I resist laying down my copy of Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? when I get the urge to pop The Breakfast Club into the DVD player. Would Bazin have been proud? Or rather, am I really supposed to care? No matter how many times I see Godard’s Breathless, I still prefer spending the night watching a Coppola masterpiece – and I mean Sofia.

I have chosen 20 films that spoke to me during the cinematic era of my pubescence, or spoke about me, or maybe just spoke in an entirely different tongue I aimed to master.

I also have no doubt this list is bound to change somewhat as life continues to be lived. Maybe in about six or seven years I’ll find something in The Graduate I’m not able to right now, something beyond a screenplay or Mike Nichols that is instigated by deeply personal individualized epiphany. Yet right now all I’ve got are "maybe" and "perhaps" and "probably" – these, and the 20 films that make me love going to the movies.

The sub-genre of the high school movie has the ability to be subversive in ways both somber and satirical. Saved!, the 2004 comedy starring Mandy Moore, Jenna Malone and the exquisite Eva Amurri, is a barbed cherry lollipop of a film on the absurdity of hypo-Christian fundamentalism; it’s the rare satire that embraces the very people that it mocks. Then there‘s Mean Girls (2004), that epic tidal wave of sheer genius that literally changed the way we think and communicate in our own high schools (no, I’m not kidding); and of course, The Breakfast Club (1985), John Hughes’ opus on teenage stereotype and identity. Judd Nelson is a revelation as the immortal Bender, and I still get chills when I listen to Anthony Michael Hall’s final voiceover (in the fifth grade I even brought sashimi to school for lunch just because Molly Ringwald did). At the end of The Breakfast Club, Simple Minds sang, "Don’t you forget about me"; truly, I never will.

There are also the nightmarish visions of teenage years: I love Catherine Hardwicke’s harrowing Thirteen (2003), starring a shattering Evan Rachel Wood as Tracy, a 13-year-old corrupted by resident bad girl Evie (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hardwicke) and the pot-laced pavement of downtown L.A. Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), on the other hand, is far more delicate: sun-kissed suburbia hides vapidity and isolation under its cracks in this beautiful and poetic adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel. What I find most terrifying is Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant’s astounding interpretation of the Columbine murders. Van Sant’s lens remains voyeuristic and does not cast judgment; by not answering the questions he asks, the reasons for the shootings, the filmmaker addresses the very issue he feels no one is paying attention to: the soul-sucking wasteland that is high school, cultivated by adults, blamed on the children.

In the film adaptation of one of my favorite plays, Closer (2004), Patrick Marber’s London becomes a hyper-realized moral tundra of neon-stripper sleaze and art gallery sterility, its denizens even more cold and clinical than the four walls they inhabit. It is essentially a squash doubles match, though pairs – as well as culpability – are always up for debate; insults and accusations and other forms of the most hurtful verbal diarrhea are lobbed back and forth with increasing force. Eventually, people are bound to get hurt; it’s much like high school, even, with Julia and Jude and Natalie and Clive all deserving detention.

I guess you could say that during one Saturday afternoon detention, the characters of The Breakfast Club all grew up; thus, the coming of age. Such a theme I find exhilarating to witness onscreen, especially since you can find it in the most unexpected places. In Garden State (2004), Zach Braff writes, directs and stars in a gem of a film about getting lost and coming home – to the Shins and Natalie Portman (I still tear up during the final airport scene). The title character of Maria Full of Grace (2004), played with quiet audacity by Catalina Sandino Moreno, reaches a similar maturation by smuggling latex heroin pellets in her stomach into the United States. Nine years after one amazing evening, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite in Before Sunset (2004) and come up with my favorite movie ending of all time. Almost Famous could have easily made it onto this list; that is, before I saw the Canadian family drama C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005). Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s uses the music of Patsy Cline, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie to achieve emotional heights Cameron Crowe could only aspire to reach.

Would it be a stretch calling The Wizard of Oz (1939) a coming-of-age saga? How about Rosemary’s Baby (1968)? I think of Roman Polanski’s deeply frightening masterpiece about a young woman (Mia Farrow) impregnated with the Devil’s child as the cinematic pinnacle of sexual awakening, a stellar and chilling meditation on womanhood – and the counterculture – in the ’60s.

Death is an aspect of cinema I’ve somehow never gotten inured to; I find catharsis in the right kind of tragedy. 21 Grams (2003), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s English-language debut and his sucker-punch follow-up to the fierce Amores Perros, is raw and supremely searing, featuring Naomi Watts’ greatest performance. Both Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) are sweeping, heart-wrenching, moving expressions of hope amid loneliness, and I weep every time I watch them; the latter is Lars Von Trier’s musical tour de force starring an unspeakably amazing Björk. My favorite novel is also one of my favorite movies: I remember seeing The Hours (2002) when I was 12, and thinking what a rich and sumptuous film it was; every time I see it, I get more out of it. What I can safely label my favorite film of all time takes its cues from the grand tragedy of Italian opera and aural aesthetic of modern pop: Moulin Rouge (2001) melded Verdi with Nirvana, Puccini with Madonna to create the most astonishing, most exuberant celebration of love I have ever seen put to screen. Visionary director Baz Luhrmann orchestrates an LSD combustion of lace, confetti and cotton candy, but what remains the heart of this musical is the age-old tale of forbidden love, made overtly passionate and tangible by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, giving the performances of their careers.

As I’m on the subject of hallucinogens, let me conclude with the two drugged-up entries on my list. Unsurprisingly I have Pulp Fiction (1994) in my top 20; who doesn’t? Singling out Tarantino as a genius may not be the most original act of worship, but it’s inexcusable to deny him, either. Just as it is to overlook Darren Aronofsky: his Requiem for a Dream (2000) is a punishing, riveting work of art that is at times excruciating to complete. Much like coming up with this list.
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