It’s a new year, and so I wanted to keep things light. We’re all still recovering from the holidays and my brain couldn’t handle anything that requires cognitive thought, so I figured we’d start the new year with a foray into this writer’s personal film favorites. These aren’t necessarily the ten greatest examples of film art ever (that’s a very different list), but they are the movies I have watched zillions of times, and the ones that I try to force on anyone who tells me they haven’t seen them. I didn’t include Star Wars because it exists in its own crystal-enclosed spot off to the side, far above the other items on the list. So here goes! In no particular order:
1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming (et al.)
This is one of those movies that never feels “old-timey” to me. It’s a fantasy that inhabits its own timeless aesthetic, and I just adore it to pieces. I’m a pretty crazed fan of all things Oz (if you hadn’t already noticed that) and this was my first exposure to the story. The cast is wonderful (Margaret Hamilton 4 Ever!), the music is catchy, and the visuals still hold up today, even under the scrutiny of hi-def remasters. I caught this at a special anniversary theater-re-release, and it’s still a magnificent experience on the big screen. This was a film that was never really associated with any one memory from my childhood. It was just always there and, over the years, attained a sort of omnipresent relevance that became something special to me as the years dragged me, kicking and screaming, into adulthood. This film was dedicated to the young and the young at heart, and it’s always been a reminder that one must never abandon the childlike wonder and simple joy that this film exemplifies.
2. Jurassic Park (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
This movie gave me nightmares for about ten years after I first saw it when I was 8, but I also remember being completely obsessed with it. I was already huge into dinosaurs and knew, with the unshakable confidence of a child that I wanted to be a paleontologist (before that, I wanted to be a marine biologist and study whales, and after that, I wanted to be an ornithologist and study birds in South America). After Jurassic Park came out, I realized that being a paleontologist was silly when I could be a dinosaur instead! One of my school chums and I would spend recess running around being our favorite dinosaurs (I was a Utahraptor, by the way, because they were super dangerous and much bigger than the turkey-sized Velociraptors) and having a grand old time. The movie then inspired me to read Michael Crichton’s original novel when I was in junior high, and Crichton quickly became my all time favorite author. As for the film itself, it’s pretty much perfect, a balance of joy and terror that only Steven Spielberg could manage. Plus, the groundbreaking effects still look good, 23 years later.
3. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Regardless of one’s religious leanings, this is one of the most epic epics that ever epiced. As a kid, I was in awe that a movie could be so big as to need two videocassettes to contain it all (I was easily impressed). But this movie is seriously massive. The cast is huge, the sets are huge, the music is huge, Moses’ beard is huge (by the end of it). It’s just a gorgeous example of film spectacle. But it also has an intimate theatrical quality to it, as well. For every scene of Joshua (a super hunky John Derek) swinging down from huge stone monuments to come to the aid of Lilia (Debra Paget) or Moses (Charlton Heston) wandering through endless desert vistas, there are many scenes of two characters in a single room engaged in multilayered, emotionally-charged conversation. Moses and Nefritiri (The magnificent Anne Baxter) have such wonderful chemistry and it’s great to chart the progression of their relationship just by analyzing the scenes they share together. And, of course, we can’t ignore the great Yul Brynner as Rameses who would have easily dominated every scene he was in were it not for the huge screen presence of his costars. One thing I adore about this movie is how every character is totally memorable. Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), Bithia (Nina Foch), Memnet (Dame Judith Anderson), Baka (Vincent Price), and Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo) are all fully realized characters even if some of them don’t have a ton of screen time. I could go on about this movie forever, but I’ll leave it at that. It’s literally the coolest movie ever.
4. Mary Poppins (1964)
Directed by Robert Stevenson
As a kid, when I was sick, this was the movie I watched, most of the time. It always made me feel better, or at least took me away from the reality of things for long enough that I forgot that I wasn’t feeling well. What sets this apart from a lot of other similar stories is that it isn’t afraid to get melancholy. The range of emotions this film covers is vast, from the goofy reactions to Admiral Boom’s explosive timekeeping to the utter bleakness of Mr. Banks when he goes to the bank to face judgment for his actions at the end. I think this wildly shifting palette of emotions works well because they are all personified by Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) herself, who goes from flighty and fun to strict and sharp-edged to wistful to deeply compassionate without ever seeming to be unfocused or chaotically written. It was a career-defining role for Andrews and boy did she ever deserve that Oscar, especially after being replaced for the film version of My Fair Lady, even though Andrews originated the role of Eliza Dolittle on Broadway. The move is just a wonderful experience, and the Sherman Brothers’ music just makes me smile every time I hear it.
5. Sister Act (1992)
Directed by Emile Ardolino
I adore this movie. Soooooooo much. This was my first exposure to the sheer amazingness that is Dame Maggie Smith, and it’s still one of my favorite roles of hers. This is just one of those rare comedies where everything works together so well that it never loses its novelty. It’s still hysterically funny to this day, and has a genuinely sweet core. And seriously, who doesn’t love singing nuns? Whoopi Goldberg has such great chemistry with all her costars, especially Maggie Smith and Wendy Makkena, who plays the shy Sister Mary Robert whom Deloris (Goldberg) helps to find her voice. Mary Wickes, who plays Sister Mary Lazarus, is dour and sarcastic and lovable, and of course, Kathy Najimy is completely effervescent as the operatically inclined Sister Mary Patrick. If you don’t walk away from this movie humming something from this film’s delightful soundtrack, then you are a tragic, soulless creature and I weep for you.
6. Spaceballs (1987)
Directed by Mel Brooks
I shouldn’t really need to explain why Mel Brooks is life, and we’re not worthy to have him in our universe. This isn’t his greatest film (Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles deserves that spot), but it is the one that introduced me to him, and it’s still the most quoted of his films among my family. It’s impossible to explain a joke without ruining the humor of it, so instead, here’s my favorite sequence from the film.
7. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Directed by John McTiernan
John Clancy’s Jack Ryan has been played by many actors (Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine) but Alec Baldwin’s turn as the CIA analyst was the first and one of my favorites (though don’t think I don’t love Patriot Games, because that movie is pretty fantastic). Very few people could hold their own against Sean Connery (playing renegade Soviet captain Marko Ramius), but Baldwin does a great job. This is also one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book (in my humble opinion). The book does a better job of setting up the clash of ideology that made the looming threat of destruction throughout the Cold War so terrifying, but the movie has a tighter and more twisty plot, especially in the film’s climax. The pacing is wonderful, the characters are great, and Basil Poledouris’ score, especially the stirring “Hymn to Red October” that opens the film, is crazy amounts of fun.
I really debated between this one and Die Hard for this list (both directed by John McTiernan), but seeing as how I saw this one first and more often (tragically, I didn’t see Die Hard until I was in my late teens. I know!) this one won out. So, “way to go, Dallas!”
8. The Sound of Music (1965)
Directed by Robert Wise
Maria Von Trapp is my spirit animal. Her song “I Have Confidence” is my “get-myself-revved-up” song. I don’t have any plans to become a governess for a prickly but oh-so-dashing former navy captain any time soon, butI’m not going to completely discount the possibility just yet. Overall, this movie careens towards the schmaltzy end of the spectrum in places, but there is enough genuine emotion and relatable character struggles (that feel when all the nuns you know are singing about you behind your back, amirite?) that this film will always be a favorite of mine. As you saw with Sister Act, I love singing nuns, so that’s also a reason why this film made the list. But mostly, it’s because I fell in love with this one pretty early on. I think our VHS copy of the film was given to me by a family friend, but I can’t be sure. The first time I saw it was on a teeny tiny TV that was in my parent’s room, and I was completely hooked ever since. The music is catchy, the acting is great, and the scenery is lovely. One of the best “today-was-a-terrible-day-and-I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-real-life-right-now” films.
9. Aladdin (1992)
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Favorite Disney movie ever. Ever. The Genie (the late, legendary Robin Williams) is my favorite Disney character, “Prince Ali” is my favorite Disney song ever, and Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) is trapped in a three-way tie with Ursula from the Little Mermaid and Scar from The Lion King as my favorite Disney villain. It tends to be overshadowed by the critical prestige of Beauty and the Beast, but Itty Bitty Me didn’t care about anything like that. I remember, once, when I discovered that the portable tape player I had could record my own voice when used with a blank tape, I recited the entire movie from memory into the tape (I skipped a few of the songs because I couldn’t remember the lyrics, and I flubbed the line “Aha, Princess, your time is up!”) so I could listen to it on long car rides. It never occurred to me to actually just put the tape player next to the TV while the movie was playing and record it that way, for whatever reason, but it’s safe to say, I still remember the entire film, word for word.
10. The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Even if you don’t like Star Trek (shame on you!) The Wrath of Khan is a sci-fi classic in its own right. Ricardo Montalban is such a great villain, you don’t really need to see the TOS episode “Space Seed” to understand what’s going on. Plus, he has super crazy 80’s hair that only David Bowie in Labyrinth was able to pull off in the same way. As a kid, I missed a lot of the wonderful themes such as facing death and aging with both dignity and grace (because who wants to do that when one is going to be a kid forever, right?), but that gave the film a multilayered quality that I loved. As I grew up, the film grew up, too, and I was able to appreciate it from multiple perspectives. As a kid, I just liked the battle of wits (and starships) in the film’s climax, as well as the freaky ceti eel which Khan puts in Chekov’s and Terell’s ears (which went from being the part where I hid under the blanket to one of my favorite scenes, because I dunno why). But the point is you should watch it if you haven’t already. Seriously.
Honorable mention goes to Independence Day, the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Lord of the Rings trilogies, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The only reason these weren’t included was because this could easily have been a Top 100 list and I just didn’t want to do that…
I’ll leave you alone, now. next week, I promise to have something less fluffy and brain-vomit-ish then. Until such a time, I hope you have a wonderful New Year filled with good movies both new and classic.