Poets' Favorite Movies
Most of my choices are what I think are the greatest films by the
greatest directors, but it’s hard not to mention their other work as
1. Touch of Evil. This is the best American movie ever and
Welles’s best film. Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady
from Shanghai, Macbeth—all have their pleasures, but Touch
of Evil blows them out of the water. Technically this film is
amazing from the first shot to the last. At first I thought Charlton
Heston was horribly miscast as the sophisticated Mexican cop, Mike
Vargas, but now I can’t imagine the movie without him. The scene in the
Mexican boyfriend’s cramped apartment is worth the whole movie as is
Janet Leigh’s stay in the motel in hell. I never get tired of watching
my copy of this film. A lot of things don’t make sense, but who cares?
2. Lilya 4-ever. This is my only choice that is not connected
to a director’s work. Lucas Moodyson is a young Swedish director and I
haven’t seen any of his other films. This one though changed my brain
chemistry. For months after I saw it, I would start crying when I
thought of Lilya. It got to be so weird that my husband would see the
tears and say, “Thinking of Lilya?” This is a powerful film about
betrayal on the most fundamental levels. I don’t know if I could ever
watch it again, but I’m glad I saw it once.
3. Ran. Kurosawa’s best—how do you chose? I’ve seen most of
his work, and it’s hard to pick out one. Ran is great, but so are
Kagemusha, The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo,
Dreams, Throne of Blood, Derzu Uzala. Ran is a
retelling of the Lear story.
4. Naked. I love Mike Leigh’s films, and there are lots to
like. My second favorite would be Topsy Turvy, the story of
Gilbert and Sullivan’s creating The Mikado, but Secrets and Lies
is great, too, as is Vera Drake. Naked, though, is my
favorite. David Thewlis is brilliant, and his rant about bar codes is
worth the whole film. Be warned—he does not play a nice guy, but for a
look at the dark side of human nature, this is the one. It also stars
Kaitrin Cartlidge, a wonderful actress, who died too young. She is in
another movie—Before the Rain—set in the midst of the Bosnian
war. This is a great movie, too.
5. Fitzcarraldo. This is a mad, gorgeous movie, Werner
Herzog’s masterpiece of his collaboration with Klaus Kinski. Also, not
to be missed are Aguire the Wrath of God, Kasper Hauser,
Strozek, Nosferatu, and My Best Fiend, a
documentary about Kinski. I didn’t like Grizzly Man too much, but
it’s right on the money as far as Herzog’s theme of a nut against the
world. It’s what he’s obviously interested in, and I am, too, when I’m
watching one of his films.
6. The Conformist. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this
movie, and every time it is a revelation. I developed all my theories
about dancing being sexier than sex in movies beginning with Stefania
Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda’s scene in this movie. Also there’s a
scene where Sandrelli dances by herself. She’s wearing a black and white
striped dress and the light in the room is cut by Venetian blinds. The
stripes of her dress moving through the stripes of light is
breathtaking. It was just re-released with extra footage. Bertolucci has
really gone off the deep end in his last movies. I hated The Dreamers.
The actress’s breasts were unrelenting. I was praying she’d put on a
sweater. The Conformist was when he was great.1900 is good, too. I
wasn’t all that wild about Last Tango in Paris, but I keep meaning to see it
7. The Conversation. Coppola and Gene Hackman, both at the peak of
their powers. In my opinion, Gene Hackman can do no wrong. Even in a
terrible movie, he disappears into a role. The same with Robert Duvall.
They are my two favorite actors. Hackman is great in this, and I like it
more than The Godfather Trilogy. Sorry, but I was scarred by Sartre at an early
age. The ending is so bleak, I might as well be 15 again.
8. Sullivan’s Travels/The Palm Beach Story. These are my favorites by
Preston Sturges. I just saw The Palm Beach Story in Paris at the Action
Christine, and I was wowed again by Claudette Colbert. The scene at the
end when she does a double-take on a diamond is worth the whole movie,
which is perfectly cast, from Joel McCrea (who is also great in
Sullivan’s Travels), to Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee, and, of course,
Colbert. Mary Astor is so funny in this movie. Almost everyone knows her
from The Maltese Falcon, but she has wonderful comic timing, too. This
film has so many great scenes—the Wienie King being one of the best and
right at the beginning of the movie. I would pick Sturges over Capra,
Hawkes, and Ford as the great American director of that period. He’s not
as sentimental as Capra nor as misanthropic as Ford.
9. Blow-up. I saw this when I was 17, and it changed the way I
watched movies. The mimes at the beginning and the end blew my mind and
it stayed blown. I’m not that big a fan of Antonioni, but I love this
film. It’s a murder mystery to end all murder mysteries, and I love
watching David Hemmings when he was young and handsome.
10. Bande à part. I’m not a big Godard fan, either, but this film is
great, especially the dance sequence that erupts out of nothing and sets
the movie on fire. I may not be a big fan but I love Breathless and
Contempt and Weekend, so maybe I am.
11. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. I am a big Peter
Greenaway fan. The first film of his that I saw was The Draughtsman’s
Contract, which I loved because it was so painterly. Greenaway is not
everyone’s cup of tea, because he’s such a misanthrope. I saw The Cook,
The Thief... in Paris when it first opened and the print was gorgeous.
Michael Gambon is such great actor, and he is so seldom seen in film. He
plays a creepy part, but he’s so good. Helen Mirren is wonderful, as
always. This film is like watching a moving painting. The mise en scene
is unbelievable—rooms and costumes change colors as people move in and
out of them. It’s like a Tintoretto come to life.
12. Mullholland Drive. So far David Lynch’s masterpiece. A lot of
people found this film confusing, but it made perfect sense to me with a
couple of exceptions. Naomi Watts was sublime. From Eraserhead to
Elephant Man to Blue Velvet to The Straight Story—this guy is the
biggest weirdo working, but even his duds are interesting. I haven’t
seen Inland Empire yet, but I can’t wait.
13. Jacques Rivette–Celine and Julie Go Boating and La Belle Noiseuse
are my two favorites. His movies are often very long and pointless, but
so is life, and at the end you are left with something grand. La Belle
Noiseuse is the best exploration I’ve ever seen of the tedium of the
14. In the Mood for Love. I really liked 2046, too, but this is so
gorgeous. Wong Kar Wai is a great director. I can’t wait to see his new
one that’s set in America.
15. Truly, Madly, Deeply. Anthony Mingella’s first film with
the incomparable Juliet Stevenson. This is one of the most romantic
films ever! Sad, too, and with Bach.
16. Wim Wenders is a great director. I love The American Friend and
Wings of Desire.
17. Truffaut’s 400 Blows, David Cronenberg (A History of Violence
my favorite movie last year, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, The Dead
I am finding it hard to stop. There’s Fellini, Pasolini, Scorcese
(Raging Bull is a great film), Eric Rohmer, Fritz Lang (M), Fassbinder.
Save me from myself.
Barbara Hamby has three books—Delirium (1995), The
Alphabet of Desire (1999) and Babel (2004). Her new book
manuscript, All-Night Lingo Tango, is all about the collision of
movies and dreams. She also has a huge kimono collection and a
heroin-like addiction to the alphabet. She teaches at Florida State
University and is currently spending every free moment seeing nominated
movies so she will be fully prepared for the Oscars.