My answer to “What’s your favorite film?” is never concrete. There are always several movies running through my brain at any given time, whether it be something spectacular I recently saw for the first time, an old favorite I love to re-visit over and over again, or even a film so incredibly bad that I wonder now and again how it ever got made (looking at you, Troll 2). While the five films listed below might not be the “best” I’ve ever seen (or even my absolute favorites), they have influenced my taste more than most and continually inspire me to watch more and subsequently write more. Here we go:
5. Inherent Vice (2014)
“It’s not groovy to be insane.”
Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest actors of our generation, and he has never shined brighter than in Paul Thomas Anderson’s overlooked masterpiece Inherent Vice. Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private investigator tangled in a vast criminal conspiracy. Anderson does a stellar job at setting a bleakly comic tone as Sportello journeys through all walks of life in 1970 Los Angeles, trying his damnedest to solve an unsolvable case. Even though Inherent Vice presents itself at first glance as a confounding detective story, several characters in the film — and even the film itself — ache with nostalgia for the 1960’s: Sportello, still a stoner hippie wearing worn jeans and old sandals, doesn’t belong in a world increasingly obsessed with the only thing worth anything — money. Hard-boiled detective films have been a fascination of mine for years and Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of dogged investigator to perfection. Even though this isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest or boldest feature, it remains to be my absolute favorite of his oeuvre and one of the best films of the past decade.
4. Mission: Impossible (1996)
“Kittridge, you’ve never seen me very upset.”
Brian De Palma is one of my favorite directors of all time. I’ve seen several of his movies for the first time in the last few months (Blow Out, Body Double, and Carlito’s Way are all terrific), but Mission: Impossible is still my go-to movie out of his extensive filmography. Tom Cruise plays spy Ethan Hunt with an intensity that hasn’t been matched by any other recent action star. After his entire team gets killed on a covert mission, Hunt is accused of being a mole by his own agency and forced to go on the run. Mission: Impossible is a far cry from the original 1960’s TV series, as De Palma trades in stealthy, quiet operations for tense action-packed sequences, but the end result is unparalleled: a blockbuster fueled by paranoia and suspense and filled to the brim with convoluted betrayals and out-of-the-blue plot twists. Later installments of the franchise have mostly been successful in replicating and twisting the first film’s formula, giving Cruise bigger and crazier set pieces for him to defy death with. Yet, the original Mission: Impossible never fails to impress me and is still one of the movies my dad and I continue to re-visit over the years; we both agree Cruise has never been better and probably never will be.
3. Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
“I don’t believe people are strong all on their own. You have to have someone’s hand to hold.”
Ingmar Bergman was a filmmaker who took jarring looks at the extremes of the human condition through fantastic or experimental elements, whether with a spiritually lost medieval knight playing chess with the physical embodiment of Death (The Seventh Seal) or with two women who each slowly lose their own sense of personal identity with the other (Persona). However, one of his most emotionally affecting works — Scenes from a Marriage — utilized a fly-on-the-wall style to tell the six-scene story of the disintegration of a marriage between Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson). As the film progresses over its long runtime (it was originally a 5-hour miniseries, and was later shortened into a 167-minute movie), Scenes from a Marriage simultaneously condemns the concept of marriage and affirms the idea of everlasting love; despite the fights and bitterness that develop between Johan and Marianne, there’s no denying the powerful connection they have with each other. Scenes from a Marriage never bothers to give the couple –or its audience — easy answers about love and ultimately ends on a bittersweet note as Marianne and Johan finally come to terms with each other. It’s one of the most devastating and true films I’ve ever seen and a testament to Bergman’s immense talent as a director.
2. Nashville (1975)
“Y’all take it easy now. This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville! They can’t do this to us here in Nashville! Let’s show them what we’re made of.”
The greatest film ever made about America, Robert Altman’s Nashville takes a sprawling, almost mosaic-like look at 24 main characters spread out through Nashville, Tennessee, within five days. The film predominantly focuses on the country-music community but still firmly presents political ideas of what America should be, in particular a campaign van with loudspeakers blaring populist candidate Hal Phillip Walker’s (never seen over the course of the movie) election promises. It’s no coincidence Nashville came out in the mid-1970s, after a decade of several political assassinations and an ever-growing distrust of the government, both of which are reflected on in the movie. However, the best part about Altman’s film remains its women, who are so wonderfully diverse and multi-dimensional (Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakley, Geraldine Chaplin, Gwen Welles, and Barbara Harris are especially incredible). At its core, Nashville is a comedy-turned-tragedy, a film that starts out sharply satirical and ends with a devastating final musical number that exposes America at its core. Re-watching the film, I often find myself wishing Nashville was longer — 160 minutes still feels much too short a time to spend with such fully realized characters.
1. La Dolce Vita (1960)
“By 1965 there’ll be total depravity. How squalid everything will be.”
“La dolce vita” translates to “the sweet life,” one of the many ironies of Federico Fellini’s 1960 eponymous masterpiece. Marcello Mastroianni (a Fellini favorite who would later star in 8 1/2) plays cool tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini in a series of seven loosely connected “episodes” that comprise the film. Throughout La Dolce Vita, Marcello aches for something more than “the sweet life” he currently leads, something that will make him happy. Yet, he can’t seem to let go of the pleasure and fame his current position brings and finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into the emptiness of his life. Marcello’s lifestyle reflects his setting of post-World War II Italy: both are obsessed with glamour and beauty as a way to hide the ruins and emptiness underneath. The film culminates with Marcello on the beach at dawn after a long night’s party. He spots a young woman (a waitress he had met previously) waving at him from the other side of a river entering the sea, trying to tell him something. Because he can’t understand her due to the waves, Marcello turns away and heads back to the party, his final goodbye to the life he could have had. La Dolce Vita could be seen as a condemnation of the direction Italy (and the world) was heading, a foreshadowing of modern paparazzi culture, and a turning point for Fellini himself as he moved from neo-realism into more dream-like films. To me, it’s all of those and something more, a film that brings me immense joy because of its craft and beauty and intense sadness because of how honestly it shows the melancholy everyday life can bring. To me, it’s pure cinema.