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Poets' Favorite Movies

Suzanne Lummis

1. The Year of Living Dangerously (1981)
Director: Peter Weir. Screenplay: David Williamson, Peter Weir, C. L. Koch (from the novel by Christopher J. Koch)
Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt

“You must watch the shadows not the puppets”—so advises Billy Kwan, Linda Hunt in one of the most riveting performances ever set down on film. This was one of Peter Weir’s earlier projects, back when it seemed he’d touched the face of Mystery and lived to tell the tale. Here, an invisible shadow realm courses alongside, or under, the all-too-tangible world of personal and political crises, and the poetry—a lyricism both visual and verbal—is interspersed with gunfire and cars bursting through roadblocks.

The first words aren’t spoken but appear as signage in a foreign airport, “Crush British/U.S. Imperialism!” Australian foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton, Mel Gibson, arrives to join the other journalists ensconced in their safe zone.  Outside its walls the civilians struggle in the most desperate circumstances, a situation so flammable that a struck match could ignite a civil war.   Even so, most of the professional danger lovers hope for promotion and relocation to a nearby country, where an even more terrible, and so more glamorous, crises has taking hold.

Not to put too fine a point on it but this 1981 movie set in 1965, in the days before the coup against Indonesia’s socialist president Sukarno—and the subsequent slaughter of 100,000 or more unfortunates on the wrong side of the effort—doesn’t feel altogether irrelevant.  (Oh, and the nearby hotspot getting global attention back then?  Saigon.)

The screen’s offered up more voluptuous beauties than Sigourney Weaver but I wouldn’t pick any of them over her, not for this role, as a British attaché’s assistant whose easy, insouciant English hauteur gets under Guy’s skin.  Then the two get caught in one of those tropical cloudbursts and she dissolves into peals of luxurious, rippling laughter.  Guy’s a goner. 

If given a choice, I might elect to have Mel Gibson be someone rather different in his life, but I wouldn’t alter an instant of his performance in his role here—as the smart and courageous but spiritually untutored Australian journalist-adventurer. 

Of Linda Hunt I’ve already spoken.  The director and casting team looked everywhere for a dwarf-sized man who could pass for half Chinese, and who could fulfill the powerful demands of this role, until “out of desperation” said Weir, they agreed to see a woman.  Frankly, I can’t imagine an actor of any height, race or gender who could outshine her canny—and uncanny—performance.  

I love The Year of Living Dangerously because it has everything I want in a movie; it’s exciting, sexy, moody and atmospheric.  It takes us deeply, and accurately I believe, into another world.  It circles at its core a troubling moral question.  Yes, everything I care about is here.  Even three-time Oscar winner Maurice Jarre’s unnervingly lovely score is here—Gamelan music composed with bells and chiming instruments.

Usually when I mention it people go, “Oh…? Oh.  Oh yes!  That was a great movie!”  Yet it seldom makes the critics’ lists of top films, nor does it appear on any other poet’s list here.  It’s the world’s most forgotten unforgettable movie.

2. The Hustler (1961)
Director: Robert Rossen. Screenplay: Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen (from the novel by Walter Tevis)
Paul Newman, Jackie Gleeson, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie

3. Women in Love ( 1969
Director: Ken Russell. Screenplay: Larry Kramer (from the novel by D. H. Lawrence)
Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden
Academy Award, Best Actress, Glenda Jackson

4. Chinatown (1974)
Director: Roman Polansky Screenplay: Robert Towne
Jack Nicolson, Faye Dunaway
Academy Award, Best Original Script.

5. Strictly Ballroom (1993)
Director: Baz Luhrman. Screenplay: Baz Lurman, Andrew Bovell
Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Bill Hunter, Pat Thomson, Gia Carides, Peter Whitford, Barry Otto

6. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Director: Luis Bunuel. Screenplay: Joe Earp
Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Stephanie Audran

7. Double Indemnity (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler (Inspired by James M. Cain’s novel)
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwick, Edward G. Robinson

8. Choose Me (1985)
Director: Alan Rudolf. Screenplay: Alan Rudolf
Genevieve Bujold, Keith Carradine, Lesley Ann Warren, Patrick bauchau, Rae Dawn Chong

9. The Train (1964)
Director: John Frankenheimer, Screenplay Franklin Coen (from the novel Le front de l’art by Rose Valland)
Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau

10. sex, lies and videotape (1989) Director: Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh
James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo


The Red Balloon (1956) Director: Albert Lamoirisse. Screenplay: Albert Lamorisse
Pascal Lamorisse, Sabine Lamorisse, Vladmir Popof
Academy Award, Best Original Screenplay; Grand Prize, Cannes Film Festival

Also, every scene these actors appear in:

The immortal Michael Caine.
From Zulu, which astounded my little friend Laurie and me when I was 13 and her parents drove us to the nearest theater, an hour away in Reno, to The Prestige at the fashionable Laemmle in Pasadena this year, I can review the span of my life through a succession of Michael Caine movies.

The incomparable Madeleine Kahn.
No better comedy actress has ever plied her trade on the screen. Mae West? No. Carol Lombard? No. Terry Garr? No. Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot? Well, hmm… No. But it’s not a fair comparison because M. was plying more than comedy (and requiring take after take, too). Doubting One, give up. Among women, in comedy, no one was ever better. Parker Posey? Now cut that out! But...well, I have to admit Parker Posey's pretty damn good. But not better.

Any scene that features Emma Thompson. I’m sure I don’t need to explain.

And one electrifying turn by an actor in an otherwise ordinary movie: Jeffrey Wright as the Puerto Rican drug lord, Peoples Hernandez, in the remake of Shaft. Yes. My god. I watch it every time it comes on television and just wait for his scenes to come up. And if anyone supposes that’s all Wright can do, rent Shaft together with Basquiat, in which he plays the doomed, enervated Andy Warhol protégé. That's called range, and not the kind you're "Home, home on...."

Suzanne Lummis is Editor of Speechless.



Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach