Poets' Favorite Movies
1. The Year of Living Dangerously
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
Russell. Screenplay: Larry Kramer (from the novel by D. H. Lawrence)
Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden
Award, Best Actress, Glenda Jackson
4. Chinatown (1974)
Director: Roman Polansky
Screenplay: Robert Towne
Jack Nicolson, Faye Dunaway
Best Original Script.
5. Strictly Ballroom (1993)
Luhrman. Screenplay: Baz Lurman, Andrew Bovell
Paul Mercurio, Tara
Morice, Bill Hunter, Pat Thomson, Gia Carides, Peter Whitford, Barry
6. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Director: Luis Bunuel. Screenplay: Joe Earp
Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Stephanie Audran
7. Double Indemnity (1944)
Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler (Inspired by James M.
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...."
is Editor of Speechless.