I don't generally approve of people making lists as a way to pass time, but I received an e-mail from a former classmate who hit up my youtube channel not long ago that read, in part, "your favorite movies are a mélange of effin' weird and... even more effin' weird." Such precise articulation deserves both repetition and response; here is my explanation, briefly, of why I adore those movies I call my favorites.
The Fall - Tarsem Singh, 2006
I saw The Fall with a friend of mine who has one of those silly celebrity specific crushes on Lee Pace. Generally speaking, when I watch movies with her, we provide running commentary for each other's amusement. Watching the film, we were both speechless. We walked out of the mostly vacant theater on a summer afternoon and turned to each other as if to say "that was the best movie of all time." Needless to say, my friend found other things to appreciate about The Fall besides Lee Pace.
I don't want to spoil any of the movie. To put it as simply as I know how: The Fall is a film about the stories we tell to ourselves and each other; about the power of imagination in the reality of the mind; about images and childhood and adulthood. It's held together by the relationship between Roy (Pace) and Alexandria (Catinca Untaru, devastatingly good for such a young actress). Roy tells Alexandria his story, and Alexandria's interpretations of Roy's fantasies are visualized for the audience. These fantasy sequences were filmed in eighteen countries, often in places that have never before been captured on film. Tarsem's inventiveness as a director, honed over years of commercial and music video direction, conspires with Colin Watkinson's cinematography to make the most beautiful of film art.
The critics who didn't like this film (many, if rotten tomatoes is anything to go by) didn't get it either. Some have compared him unfavorably to Parajanov, citing the extensively tableaux visuals that dominate their cinematographic styles. Some of that is true, but only to a point, and I point to a distinct critical laziness and an even more notable dearth of soul that fuels some of these critiques.
If I ever have literary ability up to the challenge, I'll try to properly critique this wonderful movie.
Green Snake - Tsui Hark, 1993
Perhaps less daunting to explain than The Fall, Green Snake was one of the first Hong Kong movies that I genuinely fell in love with. It certainly wasn't among the first that I had seen, mind you. I'd been watching Hong Kong genre flicks for years, mostly because I enjoyed the insane energy and bizarre, anything-goes approach of the film makers. I'd seen movies like Ebola Syndrome (Herman Yau, 1996) but had yet to really watch those Hong Kong movies that had what some snotty/stuffy people call... I don't know, merit, or something along those lines.
Green Snake didn't exactly change that per se, but it made me feel absolutely awful that I had bought it specifically to laugh about the bad special effects and Tsui Hark's idiosyncratic directorial methods. Somehow, the weirdness of Tsui's direction works incredibly well. Even the special effects and visual gimmicks that would have aged poorly if seen in a different film seem to only add to the otherworldly, noticeably artificial world the movie is set in. The cinematography relies in separate contexts on pastel lighting schemes, soft focus and saturated filtering for evocative, moody visuals. When my brother watched it, a particular scene's editing and shooting reminded him of something that might be shot by Donald Cammell circa Wild Side. Certain moments reminded me of Russ Meyer at his coyest and most fun. That's no small praise.
(a digression: I know that comparing Tsui to other film makers like that can be annoying, as it seems that it is the only way that anybody ever bothers to write about him or his films. At least give me credit, though, for not being one of those people on whose mouth the word "Godard" begins to form at first sight of a jump cut.)
Adapted by Lillian Lee (author of Farewell My Concubine, among others) from her own novelization of the Madame White Snake story, the film retells the old tale with sensuousness unusual for a film based on such a traditional story -- probably owing more to Lee's take on the story than Tsui's input as producer/director/co-writer. A few film makers have taken classic tales and tried to make them understandable to contemporary audiences, updating them without changing the setting or the story. This, along with Li Han Hsiang's 1981 Tiger Killer, are the best of these to have come from Hong Kong.
An eclectic score -- elegiac Hong Kong pop, Bollywood style Hindi music, and more expectantly, traditional Chinese music -- shows how much care went into this film compared to so many other Hong Kong films (Hong Kong's film industry was once notorious for thieving music from Hollywood productions). Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong both put in wonderfully uninhibited performances, and the special effects have a charming quality in their quaint request for the suspension of disbelief.
I've sang the praises of this movie without actually saying anything about it. That's because I think you should watch it instead of reading about it. The Tai Seng dvd is okay, but if you can get the Mei-Ah dvd, its better picture quality is worth the extra money.
Night of the Hunter - Charles Laughton, 1995
Everybody now loves this movie. It's most famous line is referenced everywhere from Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing to Bruce Springsteen's song "Cautious Man." It's up there among IMDb's top 250 films, albeit far below such cinematic perfection as Star Wars, Terminator 2, The Matrix and The Dark Knight. Congrats IMDb, on such peerless taste.
Nonetheless, Night of the Hunter was not well received at the time of its release, doing so poorly with both critics and audiences that Charles Laughton -- long respected as a consummate actor who took his roles on stage and on film quite seriously -- never tried his hand at directing film again. Robert Osbourne generally caps showings of Night of the Hunter on Turner Classic Movies by pointing out what a great loss this is, but I don't know that I agree. There's no way that anybody could top a movie like this one, and Laughton's career as a director will always be one of unequivocal success, even if retroactively rewarded success.
And the movie itself? It's a nightmare. Shot in expressionistic black and white, with highly stylized acting to accompany: attempts to understand this film in terms of psychological realism simply won't pan out so well. In fact, I think much of the fawning the film now receives comes more from the poseurs who are much too eager to seem "in the know" than they are to genuinely understand weird or unusual film texts. Certainly the weirdness of the biblical references, both the visual and narrative, might prove daunting to some, but one gets the impression that most didn't pick up on it. The carefully staged acting -- especially the freakish performance from Robert Mitchum -- is unsettling, and not at all in keeping with what audiences expected when it was released, nor anything like what contemporary audiences are accustomed to seeing from popular actors.
Night of the Hunter was a perfect storm; a once in a blue moon coalescing of talent, luck, and ill fortune. Genuinely, there's nothing else like it.
Bells from the Deep - Werner Herzog, 1995
Ugh, I should have started with this one. Herzog directs a documentary about faith and superstition in post-Soviet Russia. There's so many weird images of exorcisms, Jesus impersonators, Pilgrims roaming about on thin ice (source of one of the film's controversies), a lonely bell ringer and as many other strange expressions of faith that one could find, that I find myself more or less in awe of the strangeness of it all. Herzog directed other films about religion, but this is my favorite. It probably should have been Aguirre or Fitzcarldo or Heart of Glass that filled this slot, if I were going for cult movie nerd cred, but I can't lie. This movie speaks to me; I just don't know how to speak about it.
Anyways, there's some other movies I consider to be favorites. I think I have Satoshi Kon's Millenium Actress on that list, and possibly Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express or Ashes of Time. All spectacular movies, but if I were to pick only my absolute favorite movies -- the ones I would choose to preserve from nuclear apocalypse or take to that rhetorical desert island that must be quite populated with people who were asked to go there with things/people -- it's these four. Also, I hate lists. So I'm ending this one now.