When asked to submit a list of my five favorite movies of all time, the only way I could think to tackle such a task is to not think. And so I sat down at my keyboard and typed out the first five things that popped into my head, without second-guessing anything.
As such, and without apology:
Bicycle Thieves (1948, dir. Vittorio De Sica)
Living in Toronto, I am often reminded of the TIFF Group’s mission statement: to transform the way people see the world through film. And it always reminds me of something Roger Ebert once said, that cinema is a machine that generates empathy. These ideas are two sides of the same coin, and Bicycle Thieves is some of the most powerful cinematic currency in circulation. Bicycle Thieves has it all, with memorable characters and powerful performances guided by strong, assured directing. But it’s also one of the best-plotted films of all time, and that’s the fundamental key to its success. The film follows the main characters through markets, brothels, churches and various encounters with the police. It is a journey through social spheres, support networks, and systems of authority, all of which fail our protagonists. It is a film that does not simply pity but attempts to understand the how and why of the eventual crime, of the desperation that forces everyday people into making decisions we may have never thought ourselves capable. Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece remains shockingly relevant, offering a powerful antidote to the troublesome notions inherent in today’s cultural concepts of individualism and exceptionalism; there are no bootstraps here, and when people fail, it’s because society fails them first.
Tropical Malady (2004, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Rarely have I been as emotionally overwhelmed by a film as I was by the end of Tropical Malady. A lyrical, sensual gay romance, Tropical Malady might have been a masterpiece if it had continued on in that manner for its whole duration. But this film is something more, something that jolted me from a jaded stupor and sent me tumbling out of the theatre feeling dazed and weightless. The film switches gears right in the middle as one of the two lovers, a soldier, is sent to a remote village to track missing villagers who have been abducted and possibly killed by a shape-shifting creature. In the wilderness, he encounters the creature, who is actually his lover from the first part of the film (or at least played by the same actor). The creature stalks him, attacks him, and lures him deeper into the jungle. This portion of the film is really the first part, repeated, but with the rituals of a civilized society stripped away, holding a mirror up to our basic, animalistic desires and instincts. The film completely remakes itself as it unfolds, bifurcating its narrative and deconstructing its own binaries (the city and the jungle, man and animal, spirit and flesh, love and hate). I had never seen anything like it before; I have never seen anything like it since.
La Jetée (1962, dir. Chris Marker)
Chris Marker’s famous short film is perhaps the greatest science fiction film of all time (a bold claim, I know, given the existence of a certain Stanley Kubrick film). La Jetée is about images and memories, fleeting impressions and moments frozen in time, told entirely through still photography (it’s not a movie, according to Marker, but a photonovel). Marker presents the act of remembering as a collage, and the experience of time as a fundamental prison. La Jetée is a story about time travel, and the dislocation of space, time and experience; it is about the desire to transcend these limitations, to escape to a place beyond, and the impossibility of such desire, the impossibility of more. It is about the end of all things, of memory and time and life itself. La Jetée finds Marker at the peak of his artistic powers and contains the greatest plot twist in the history of cinema. And, for a brief moment, there is a single moving image, a memory so powerful I often mistake it for one of my own. I can never be sure I didn’t simply dream this movie into existence.
“Hounds of Love” (1986, dir. Kate Bush)
Kate Bush is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. She is also a brilliant filmmaker. While her music videos are often wonderful for her dancing and unique choreography, I submit that “Hounds of Love,” which she directed herself, is among the best, and one of the best music videos ever made. An homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s early masterpiece, The 39 Steps, “Hounds of Love” is a story about the fears of falling in love. The video is full of energy, brilliantly constructed in two parts, and containing some striking visual parallelism. I particularly like the use of slow motion during the dance in the second half, and how the camera then follows the two lovers as they twirl on the dance floor, suddenly spinning around them in 360 degrees when they come to a stop, as if they had been winding the camera up and send it spiraling with their energy. But it’s the first part that has found permanent residence in my mind. It begins with a spinning long take that could have irresponsibly continued for the entire first half, but Kate Bush employs five quick, simple and brilliant cuts for impact, a quick series of close-ups and intense glances, achieving maximum melodrama. In the last shot, the camera pans right and suddenly tracks left, following the two lovers as they run out of the room, coming to a halt at the entrance as the crowd continues to pour out in chase, and the energy and perpetual motion (always a dialectic between the camera and the performers) never fails to make my heart skip a beat. I always feel like I’m floating, about to tumble forward or be thrown from my chair, pushed through the doorway and sent spiraling myself. Pure cinema.
Eden (2014, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Mia Hansen-Løve is one of the strongest new voices in modern cinema. Originally discovered by Olivier Assayas and cast in his 1998 film, Late August, Early September, she is now a formidable filmmaker in her own right. Her debut, All Is Forgiven, is one of the best feature debuts in recent memory, and her subsequent films have each been better than the last. Logically, that means Things to Come is currently her best film, but I’m going with Eden for personal reasons. The film is based on the life of her brother, Sven, who was a DJ during the era of the French touch, the musical scene that famously spawned Daft Punk. This is not a movie about Daft Punk, and yet, it is. Specifically, it’s a movie about the people who did not become Daft Punk. Paul, the main character, pursues his dreams with passion, but as fame slowly teases him and slips away, while skyrocketing his two soon-to-be android friends to unimaginable heights, he loses direction and slowly self-destructs. He becomes a man out of step with the world around him, and himself, living in denial; a man whose dreams slowly evaporate, whose life slowly spirals out of control; a man who has lost himself, and can’t find a way back to himself, or a way forward. And so he sits in a bar, alone, and drinks, while Daft Punk plays on the radio. This all feels far too real, far too familiar. Pass the bottle. I need a drink.