As someone who’s indecisive in pretty much all faculties of life, it should come as no surprise that I had trouble narrowing down my five favorite films. Put simply, it’s an impossible task. So instead, here’s a list of five that I just really love.
Days of Heaven
Ah, the good old days, filled to the brim with fresh air, wide-open skies and fields of wheat as far as the eye can see. Terrence Malick has made a career out of capitalizing on the inherent emotional resonance of natural landscapes, but for my money, he’s never topped Days of Heaven. I can think of no other film (save for perhaps the stunning opening of Post Tenebras Lux) that better captures the so-called “magic hour” in all its, well, magic. Suffice to say, it’s a strikingly beautiful movie. But whereas later Malick films tend to rely on sterling cinematography and enigmatic narration to mask their complete void of characterization (seriously man, what the fuck was Song to Song?), Days isn’t content resting on its laurels. Yes, it features Malick’s penchant for V.O., but it doesn’t go on and on like his more recent stuff. It’s flowery in all the right ways, and delivered perfectly by Linda Manz; I’m serious when I say I could listen to her say “mud doctor” all day. Add in the always dependable Richard Gere (“And one day you wake up, you find you’re not the smartest guy in the world…” kills me every time), an all-time onscreen fire, a tapdancing legend, and the god Sam Shepard and you have the makings of a classic. Plus, it’s only 95 minutes long! You could watch Days of Heaven twice in the amount of time it takes to finish The Thin Red Line. What more can you ask for?
The Long Goodbye
Another 70s gem, The Long Goodbye is probably the coolest movie I can think of, and that distinction rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Elliott Gould, whose Philip Marlowe is, if not my favorite, one of my favorite performances ever committed to film. His deep, relaxed voice, his playful wit, his everything. I know Robert Altman intended for the film to be a satire, to juxtapose the classic private eye with the (then) modern world. And I think it mostly succeeds in that regard, what with the brilliant opening supermarket run (“He’s got a girl, I got a cat”), the silly cop with all the impressions, and the scene where half a dozen gangsters, including a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, undress in front of each other. But in the end, I believe the intended effect was not quite realized, and it all comes back to how goddamn cool Gould is. Seriously, tell me Spike from Cowboy Bebop wasn’t modeled after him. Before I move on, I’d be remiss not to mention Sterling Hayden’s drunken genius as the novelist Roger Wade, who features in a wonderful oceanic moment, the magnificent soundtrack, and the fact that nobody writes conversations like Altman writes conversations. Now, to listen to the theme on repeat for the next hour straight. ♪ There’s a looooong goooodbyeeee ♪
The Wind Will Carry Us
Though I haven’t seen every movie, not by a long shot, I feel fairly comfortable saying no one else in the history of the medium has constructed cinematic mysteries quite like Abbas Kiarostami. And that’s because they’re not mysteries of the plot so much as they’re mysteries of emotion. Okay, that definitely sounded better in my head but bear with me! See, perhaps more than any other director, Kiarostami’s films have a tendency to linger in my mind long after watching them. Of course, that’s nothing new, it’s the mark of all good movies. But whereas other films and television series confound with spectacle (think 2001) and/or general wtf-ness (think Twin Peaks), Kiarostami confounds with restraint and simplicity—okay, so maybe he does have some pretty out their meta moments of his own, but with The Wind Will Carry Us he dials it back to the basics: car rides across the barren Iranian countryside, cows milked in darkness, that sort of stuff. Anyway, the reason I’m listing this and not any of his other masterpieces is that A) I love movies where people hang out and nothing really happens; B) I love movies that feature tangible communities. Wind has both in spades. It’s literally about a guy sitting around doing nothing for two weeks, while he waits for an old woman to die. The film is a hangout classic, up there with the likes of Dazed and Confused and its ilk, chalk full of human interaction, subtle humor and a permeating sense of boredom. In fact, a couple of characters get so bored they essentially excuse themselves from the film. Combine that quality with the setting—a small Kurdish village nestled amongst a gorgeous rocky environment—a lively cast of characters (shout-out to Farzad), and the underlying dark humor of the scenario, and there’s just no way I wasn’t going to love this.
The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste)
I, without a doubt, owe a large portion of my love for cinema to animation. I have fond early childhood memories of Mickey Mouse shorts, Looney Tune hijinks, and Tom & Jerry battles. From there I was naturally swept up by the tide of 90s Disney royalty, The Lion King, and Toy Story is the most foundational. And then in 2002, at the ripe age of 10, I was introduced to the mind of Hayao Miyazaki through the eternal classic Spirited Away, which needs no introduction. Now, sixteen years later, I’m glad to say my love of animation has not faded. I could include any number of animated films on this list, but I want to highlight what is, in my mind, an overlooked masterpiece. First, let’s get it right out of the way: Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is the prettiest animated movie I have ever seen. Feel free to disagree, there are certainly many contenders to the throne, but that’s how I feel. It’s like they drilled a hole in my brain while I was sleeping and downloaded all my favorite aesthetic qualities. The art style, the gray Scottish skies, the cobblestone streets, the vibrant colors. I can’t compliment the visuals enough. But good visuals alone don’t make good movies; if they did, Only God Forgives would be an all-time instead of the turd that it is. No, what keeps me coming back to The Illusionist is the humanity of the film, the oscillation between absolute joy and devastating sorrow. As cheerful as the visuals look, this is not a happy movie. It’s melancholy, a sobering portrayal of a working-class man and his hardships. But there are enough moments of pleasure along the way, charming characters and humorous scenarios, to ultimately cast away any lingering sadness. Bittersweet magic.
The Gleaners and I
Speaking of humanity, it’s only right that I include The Gleaners and I, my favorite film of Agnès Varda’s luminous career. I first saw this in 2013, and I swear not a month has gone by that I haven’t thought back to it. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie as far as I’m concerned. Of course, it’s not all feel-good, the film raises several salient points about food waste and environmentalism that I don’t want to disregard, but the core message is one of love and understanding. You see, of all of Varda’s admirable qualities, her insight and humanization of the lower class have always resonated most with me. It’s liberating to see these people depicted on film (or in this case video). They are marginalized, not forgotten, just ignored. Varda gives them visibility, a voice for the unheard, but more than that, she gives them respect. She treats these people like, well, people, and as simple as that may seem, it means so much. It also doesn’t hurt that she chooses fascinating people to interview. I enjoy every second of this film, but the focus on the city “gleaning” (i.e. dumpster diving) is my favorite part; god bless that man who was teaching immigrants French in his free time. Factor in Varda’s palpable mix of dread and wonder over her old age, and all those playful moments, the trucks, the lens-cap dance, the heart-shaped potatoes, and I don’t know, it all just goes a long way towards melting my heart.