When exposed to a consistent blitz of incredible films, you’re doomed to fall in love over and over again. It’s impossible to trim the endless list of films still clutching me in their grasp without inciting a disturbance. The act of excluding an important title or ignoring an influential director would crawl all over me and gnaw at my nerves like an insect swarm. Just the thought of it makes me itch. Instead of a list of favorites, here are five films I frequently return to. In a massive, ever-expanding crowd of brilliant cinema, these are faces that often stand out.
Running On Empty (1988)
Danny Pope is not an ordinary teenager. Most kids his age boil with angst, longing to be someone else. Danny has been someone else his entire life. His parents Arthur and Annie were tangled in a web of violent, extremist politics before he was born. They made a senseless choice that left an innocent man blind and paralyzed. Now they flee from town to town, rewriting their story with each new location. New names, new schools, new lies—this is the only life Danny and his younger brother Harry have ever known. Arthur and Annie evade the FBI because their lives are tainted beyond retribution, but is it right to keep their children on the run and condemn them to the same fate? In his most triumphant performance, River Phoenix is a secret piano prodigy with a dozen aliases who wants nothing more than to just be Danny Pope.
At his latest school, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, Danny’s talent is discovered by his new music teacher. He falls in love with the teacher’s daughter, played wonderfully by Martha Plimpton. An audition for Juilliard School of Music comes shortly after. As word of his talent spreads, Danny’s identity conflict is amplified. He has found a way out. But it’s never that easy for the Pope family. Will Danny continue on the run with his family or will he finally break away? This is a film about desperate decisions and painful consequences. The incomparable Sidney Lumet—known for directing many great films like 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico—is nearly flawless in his tender execution. This is my favorite film of Lumet’s catalogue due to his methods in capturing the Popes’ endearing crusade. His approach is most successful in a gripping birthday party scene where the Popes sing and dance around the kitchen table to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. As they fight to keep their family together, their journey is riddled with sorrow and pain but not without moments of great beauty.
The French Connection (1971)
The French Connection looks and feels like a documentary. William Friedkin’s camera sprints into the heat of the action, capturing every scene like a field reporter as the story speeds on. Gene Hackman is stellar as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, and the legendary Roy Scheider doesn’t disappoint as Buddy Russo. Popeye and Buddy are two NYC narcotics officers who tumble into a $32 million heroin smuggling operation from Marseille to New York City. Their pursuit is expertly paced, and their suspenseful confrontations with American cronies, French criminals, and Mafia affiliates culminate in scenes that shriek with intensified violence.
The chases never slow in The French Connection. Friedkin is steadily focused and forceful in orchestrating the accelerated plot. Although this element of the story is entrancing, the most interesting aspect is Hackman’s immersive performance. Popeye is a real asshole. He is a callous, erratic, blindly ignorant lawman who uses excessive force without hesitation. This is not due to an overwhelming struggle to uphold the law but to his psychotic obsession with his professional duties and the position they provide. He needs a high-profile victory to resuscitate his career, and sometimes it seems he might do anything for a win. During the film’s famous, white-knuckle car chase, Doyle blares his car down a busy highway at 70mph with frigid, terrifying determination. He weaves the wrong way through heavy traffic, relentlessly charging after an overhead train despite innocent commuters crashing all around him.
Hackman’s character isn’t interesting because he is likable. His appeal emanates from a vicious ferocity that mirrors the amoral actions of the very criminals he works to apprehend. Popeye is unpredictable and that makes him hard to forget. I believe The French Connection to be Friedkin’s finest achievement. It earned him Oscar gold and helped establish his undeniable cinematic voice. There were many incredible films made in the 1970’s and this one stands among the best.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Ingmar Bergman is arguably the greatest director in the history of cinema. He boasts a filmography swollen with spellbinding perfection, but none of his work has rattled me quite like The Virgin Spring. It is a tense, frightening tale of a young girl named Karin, her loving parents, and their tragic destiny. One day, Karin and her servant Igneri venture into the woods to deliver church candles. They eventually split up, and Karin crosses the path of some goat herders—two men and a young boy. Eventually the men rape and murder Karin while Igneri secretly watches from afar.
Later, the criminals seek food and shelter in their victim’s home as Karin’s parents (portrayed stunningly by Max von Sydow and Birgitta Valberg) nervously await their daughter’s return. When the villains attempt to sell some of Karin’s clothing, they unknowingly alert their hosts to her ghastly fate. Soon after their guests fall asleep, Karin’s parents plot their vengeful retaliation. Troves of films attempt to depict the graphic pursuit of sweet revenge, but The Virgin Spring is not concerned with sensationalism or exploitation. Rather than dwelling on violence or viscera, Bergman’s camera patiently disassembles the characters through their dreadful choices and the haunting consequences that follow. Wes Craven would later sculpt his own grisly version of the story in his nightmarish epic, The Last House on the Left. Craven’s film shivers with sizzling vigor, but The Virgin Spring is a far superior accomplishment. In the dead of night, von Sydow’s character wrestles a tree from the earth, consumed by passionate rage. After murdering the herdsmen and even the little boy, he peers down at his bloody hands as if they belong to a stranger. This is some of the most stinging imagery ever put to screen. This is Bergman at his best.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
¿Qué es un fantasma?What is a ghost? This is the opening line to The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro’s arresting horror fantasy. Rather than setting expectations for jump scares or gore, he poses a simple question: What is a ghost? The answer is quite elusive. Del Toro introduces us to a boy named Carlos. It is 1939, and General Franco’s right-wing Nationalists are nearing a victorious horizon after three years of bloody civil war. The Republican leftists have all but been defeated, including Carlos’ father. He is dropped at an antiquated orphanage in a barren part of Spain with an enormous bomb resting nose first in the dirt of the courtyard like a menacing clocktower.
Carlos slowly acclimates to his new home and begins forming friendships with the other boys. Soon the ghoulish, ghostly presence of a dead orphan named Santi latches onto him and won’t let go. Many hair-raising scenes frame Santi as a malevolent specter, but the truth is much more complicated. He is trapped between life and death, tethered to the location of a fateful tragedy. Carlos and the other orphans band together to fight the flesh-and-blood evil responsible for the death of poor Santi and the result is an eerie, sympathetic portrayal of innocence lost. Del Toro’s monsters often wilt in comparison to the hideousness of his human characters, and this film is no exception. He uses the fantastic to dissect reality, pulling out its bloody innards to paint tales of love and loss, good and evil, all the while constructing ambiguous perspectives on life and death. The Devil’s Backbone is an inventive fable about a desolate, lonely place and the secrets that sleep within its shadows.
John Carpenter’s Halloween is timeless. Increasingly desensitized audiences often discredit its ability to scare after decades of mainstream saturation. Second-rate frights conjured by sequels act as ammunition for detractors, but their arguments eventually fall flat. Halloween is a ruthless thriller about awful things happening to ordinary people. These characters remain within the confines of familiarity, choosing to stay in their hometown for the duration of the story. No hiking into unknown areas, no midnight-hour car trouble in the middle of nowhere—they lead regular lives and perform everyday activities like you and me. They go to school, they go to work, they watch television, they gossip, they whisper, shout, eat, sleep, and fuck, but nobody goes looking for trouble. There’s no need—the horror finds them instead.
After all these years, Halloween still doesn’t feel like a movie. Carpenter illustrates his fictional Illinois town with meticulous, realistic simplicity, convincing us that Haddonfield is a place where anyone could live. This association provides a unique, horrifying experience that leaves lasting psychological wounds. Evil walks off the screen and follows us home. Long before The Shape appears, Carpenter gives us hazy daytime shots and cavernous night frames pierced by jagged light. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) pursues Michael Myers with ferocious drive as he stabs through Haddonfield in a pale William Shatner mask. Enter the legend Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, and the story pulses toward a violent, nerve-shattering climax. Carpenter occupied multiple creative roles in this production by directing, scoring, and co-writing—a method he would revisit many times in his prolific career. Halloween is undoubtedly an amazing horror movie, but it’s also one of the most important and influential films in all of American cinema.