I love great films, but my personal identity is not nearly so tied up in “myself as cinema-goer” compared to, say, “myself as voracious reader” or “myself as actor/theatre-patron.”* Still, I enjoy fine art in its varied forms, and I watch movies always hoping for a transcendent experience. Without a doubt, there is a short list of films that speak to me beyond a great story or a pleasant couple of hours passed. These land squarely in the realm of art appreciation, and here are my nominations:
Lawrence of Arabia
Epic, beautiful, brilliantly done; I’m not sure this one needs any justification. I had the pleasure of seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen at an art house cinema. See this one in a theater if you can!
Stand By Me
Without question, I saw this movie at the right time in my life for its maximal impact, but it holds up for my adult self. Youth on a quest, buffeted and baffled by the adult world they will soon join but don’t yet fully understand… It’s all there, and with perhaps the best performances ever achieved by a few of its young stars. The story was believable, the cast succeeded in telling it, the visuals were a perfect complement: this is a great coming of age film.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
As I composed this list during a bout of insomnia, I was fretting about the lack of comedies. I’m a funny person (if I do say so myself), and I enjoy watching comedy more than anything else. But, was there a truly great comedy in my history? And then, I remembered The Meaning of Life. Monty Python is always a hoot, but this is the one that wrapped it all up and tied it with a bow.
The Seven Samurai
Another epic; again, I’m almost embarrassed to add my 2¢ and attempt to express why this film is on my list. The camera work is breathtaking. To even imagine such mastery with the limited tools of the 1950’s boggles my mind. Though the setting in Japan is so foreign, the fundamental humanity of the story transcends time and place. Every one of us can empathize with the fearful villagers and the valiant samurai. And then, there is the performance by Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo. It must be listed amongst the best performances of all time. I’ve never seen its equal.
And, finally, perhaps:
The Hours is my only hesitation on this list. I loved it. It moved me deeply. I left transformed, and that’s why I’m writing about it today. I saw it fairly recently, and I haven’t returned to this film over a period of years like the others. Sometimes, though, there is an ineffable something about a work of art that latches onto your heart and won’t let go, and that’s what I felt here. In a decade, I’ll read this list and see if it was true love, or a passing fancy. The female leads carried the film in a masterful way, and the intertwining stories magnified each other, reflected and distorted each other, and created a whole greater than their respective parts. It’s rare to find the desperate lows and exultant highs of human experience exposed so well in the one story.
How I selected these titles
I think I demand something epic in the scope of the cinematography to call a film great. Size is a factor—the big screen, being big, seems to call out for spectacle! There is also the shared element of audience in cinema, as in theatre; these are works to be enjoyed in a group, though ideally evoking additional personal response within the communal experience. I want a film to have presence; it should stand out like a star, whether one of quiet dignity or gaudy sparkle.
A compelling story is a given, as are consistent performances by the cast, but I don’t demand a star or individual brilliance from the performers. The film itself should be brilliant to make this list. The movie must create a gorgeous, cohesive whole, impossible to imagine it made differently. It should feel perfectly, wholly itself.
Although the movie, overall, isn’t a favorite, I’m tempted to put Touch of Evil on this list just for the opening scene with the car driving through the town. It is the most agonizing three minutes of film I’ve ever watched. The suspense is brilliant, but the rest of the movie doesn’t stay with me in the same way.
Along similar lines, His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night both come close—very close!—but I think I’m responding as much to the dialog/acting/chemistry as to the film as a work of art, so those belong on a different list, which would also have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe…
What do you think are the greatest films of all time? How do you make that decision? Cinematography? Cast? Story? Musical score? Or something I haven’t thought of here?
*I haven’t been on-stage in years, but, to my core, I see myself as an actor. It is as much who I am as a thing that I do or have done.