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Poets' Favorite Movies

Barbara Hamby

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 well.

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 again.

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 artistic process.

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 was my favorite movie last year, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, The Dead Zone).

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.

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach