Top Ten Films—According To A Film Librarian
onsidering my day job—I run the film and music department of a university library (although not for much longer—modernization! Modernization!)—it’s perhaps surprising that I’ve not written more about film for Stylus. Then again, it’s perhaps not—contrary to the beliefs of the students who utilize my department’s facilities every day, I don’t sit around watching films all summer break or during quiet periods; there’s cataloguing to be done, circulation policies to be decided, stock and equipment maintenance to be undertaken.
Beyond this there’s also the numbing familiarity that transpires when the same films are on screening lists for academic modules year-in, year-out; no, I’ve never seen Agnes Varda’s obscure Les Glaneurs Et La Glaneuse or Stephen Frears’ controversial My Beautiful Laundrette, but I sure have loaned them to students a hell of a lot. By the time I get home, the last thing I want to watch is another po-faced European social realist drama about adolescent fathers selling their babies on the black market or French intellectuals being faux-stalked by their own offspring.
No, there are definite rules for what kind of films I like—nothing in black & white, nothing from before I was born, nothing directed by Michael Haneke or Catherine Breillat, anything with dragons or dinosaurs in it—and few exceptions make it through these stringent, cogent and logical criteria, as you will see across this list, the only stipulations of which are that we have the films in our collection, and that I like them, for whatever reason.
10. Double Indemnity, dir. Billy Wilder
I’ve never seen Double Indemnity, and frankly never intend to; its inclusion on this list is based purely on the elation I experienced when, at long last, it was released on DVD a couple of years ago, thus ending three years of worry and fret over it being one of the most-taught films in the department despite the only copy we had being an ancient and creaky VHS recorded from television some decade previously. Of course, now we have several gleaming DVD copies, no one teaches it.
(Alternative choice of a film I actually like: Dawn of the Dead, dir. George A. Romero.)
9. Solaris, Dir. Andrei Tarkovskii
The opening shot of Tarkovskii’s legendary 3-hours-plus low-budget 70s Russian metaphysical sci-fi thriller, some reeds in a fast-flowing stream, is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. It makes me want to die; such is its exquisite perfection. The rest of the film, so long that it needs two DVDs just for the feature, also makes me want to die, but not because it’s beautiful; because it’s so mind-and-bum-numbingly, distressingly, soporifically, interminably fucking boring. Thrice I have attempted to watch it, and thrice I have fallen asleep, eventually making it to the bitter end in two determined sittings over the course of a weekend. So why is it in this list? Because of the pure, sadistic glee I fleetingly experience every time I loan it out to an unsuspecting student. Especially the rude ones.
(Alternative choice of a film I actually like: Badlands, dir. Terence Malick.)
8. Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan
I love the idea of superhero / comic book adaptation films but I’m perpetually ever so slightly disappointed by them. Yes, X2, Raimi’s second Spider-Man film and Hellboy were all good, perhaps even very good, and Sin City remains about the most stylish lesson in page-to-screen migration, but most have been average at best, with a few descending into full-on awfulness. The problem with most adaptations is the huge mythologies that exist within the source material—Daredevil, Hulk and Fantastic Four, for instance, have thirty years (or more) of monthly issues to draw inspiration from as well as clearly understood aesthetics and complex moralities. It’s no wonder that most directors boggle and then flail when faced with them.
Bar Brad Bird’s excellent The Incredibles (pretty much an animated Pixar re-write of Alan Moore’s Watchmen starring Fantastic Four rip-offs), Nolan’s Batman genesis interpretation is my favorite. A dark interpretation with a stellar cast, it strikes a terrific balance between iconography, character-development, and narrative-establishment, while neatly avoiding the kitschy design that dated Burton’s version and made Schumacher’s so bloody awful.
7. By Brakhage, dir. Stan Brakhage
Not a movie in the strictest sense, but a Criterion box set of short experimental films by Kansas City’s Stan Brakhage, whose 40-year career span saw him create over 200 films, many of them foregoing traditional cinematography in favor of painting, etching, inking, scratching, and gluing organic objects directly onto film stock. The results, particularly of his radical early films (later efforts saw, pah, real human beings filmed with a camera, and stuff, typically while smoking cigarettes) are varied, but when Brakhage hit the mark his work could be unutterably strange and beautiful.
He notoriously shunned the idea of his films being watched with music (unlike Canadian-based kindred-spirit Norman McLaren, who scratched soundtracks directly onto some of his films as well as visuals), but I can definitely recommend watching Brakhage’s films to a soundtrack of Fennesz’s excellent and equally beatifically mind-melting Endless Summer. Barely anyone but me has watched this.
6. Pan’s Labyrinth, dir. Guillermo Del Toro
From the moment I saw the first still of the “Pale Man” nearly two years ago I was chomping at the bit to see Pan’s Labyrinth, and when it finally found its way to my local cinema I wasn’t disappointed. The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy had already made me a Guillermo Del Toro fan, each demonstrating a degree of subtlety, humor, and humanity normally absent in ghost stories and superhero films. Perhaps I wished for a higher quotient of fantasy while anticipating Pan’s…, but in actuality the film’s precarious balance between the real world and the phantasmagorical labyrinth itself is imperative to the emotional weight it lays across your chest. We have it in the department because I ordered it myself; no one teaches anything this interesting yet.
5. La Jetée, dir. Chris Marker
30-minutes long, French, black & white, older than I am, no dinosaurs—this breaks all sorts of my own rules (because none of the other films in this list do…) but gets in regardless because it is, simply, wonderful. The film that inspired Terry Gilliam’s typically-deranged 12 Monkeys, this is sci-fi but not as you know it; presented as a series of still images with a nondescript but still affecting narration, its main purpose is not to brain-dazzle the viewer with time-loop paradoxes, but rather to move one’s emotions by telling an essentially simple love story with a complex and dramatic twist.
4. Koyaanisqatsi, dir. Godfrey Reggio
Erstwhile monk, philosopher, anthropologist and film-maker Reggio supposedly spent a chunk of his fourteen-years of religious training not speaking to anyone—fitting then, that his films should be plotless ruminations on the nature of humanity’s relationship with Planet Earth that feature no dialogue but lots of repetitious Philip Glass music.
If that sounds pretentious, let me put you in no doubt; Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi phrase meaning “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or “life out of balance,” and the film itself is 90 minutes of artful shots of clouds, rivers, amazing natural rock formations, ploughed fields, huge industrial quarries, people scurrying around shopping centres like ants, cars trailing tail-lights like streamers around a night-time city, and atomic explosions, everything slowed-down or sped-up as deemed necessary.
On one hand you could call it dull, and you’d be right. On the other hand, the procession of images and the hypnotic nature of the music make Koyaanisqatsi one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. One of the first enquiries I ever dealt with was from somebody looking for it; it wasn’t available then, but I made sure we had it as soon as it was.
3. Ping Pong, dir. Fumihiko Sori
A sports movie with a difference, Ping Pong turned up in my office for me to catalogue before I’d heard of it otherwise. Compelled to watch it by a film-making friend (who cast me as a Nazi in a short he made; hmmm) with a penchant for table tennis, I wasn’t disappointed—the stylish direction, brief moments of magical realism, and layered performances by the two male leads (playing school friends who become rivals over the course of several months and numerous games of ping-pong) were easily enough to win me over. Plus it’s called Ping Pong; possibly the nicest film-title to say out loud ever!
2. Io Non Ho Paura, dir. Gabriele Salvatores
I’m Not Scared, to refer to Salvatores’ period drama set in southern Italy’s beautiful and bountiful golden corn fields by its translated title, arrived in my department not long after reviews of its British release had made me want to see it. It took me two years to bring it home though, finally prompted by a project to re-catalogue foreign-language films to include details of subtitles, and I’m so glad I did. Pitched somewhere between Pan’s Labyrinth (but pre-dating it) and Terence Malick’s wondrous Days of Heaven, Io Non Ho Paura is both a visual feast and a moving coming-of-age drama, based around endless childhood summer days, kidnapping, near-poverty, and bicycle rides through the corn.
1. Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuaron
It’s ironic that of the three Mexican directors to establish themselves as major players in this decade, Alfonso Cuaron was probably the one who impressed me least initially; he’s now definitely my favorite. I enjoyed Y Tu Mama Tambien despite the “look! saucy foreigners!” reception it received in the UK, and I enjoyed his spin on Harry Potter despite my preconceptions of the franchise, but nothing prepared me for Children of Men.
Perhaps it’s that his dystopia is so very British—recognizable (if aged) news anchors, dope-smoking hippies, downtrodden bureaucrats, Pink Floyd iconography, grey seaside towns—as well as so compellingly complete in its scope, without ever spoon-feeding the audience with contextual exegesis. The cinematography is exceptional, the dialogue and performances touched with realism, and the plot, though simple, decorated with so many exquisite moments and set-pieces that repeated viewing is a must. I was so impressed with this at the cinema that I not only ordered it for the department, I also bought the two-disc version (with comments by Slavoj Zizek!) for myself.
Hardware, dir. Richard Stanley
Of course there are some stinkers in the office—many of them loveless French “erotic dramas”—and I have been victim to more than my fair share of them either through unscrupulous recommendations, idiotic and self-flagellatory curiosity, or pure unavoidability. Hardware, despite a quote from The Face on the cover proclaiming it “Terminator for the nineties,” is by far the worst, and I blame my friend and ex-colleague Billy for making me watch it.
A disgusting, cheesy, amoral, Iggy Pop-starring sci-fi horror directed by music-video veteran Richard Stanley, it tells the tale of a killer robot which, through a pointlessly convoluted plot, ends up trapped in a flat with a hapless female would-be-victim, whom the killer robot (called Mark 13) repeatedly tries to rape. Nice, eh? Hardware also features a cameo from Carl McCoy, Fields Of The Nephilim frontman, plus a soundtrack including Motorhead, Iggy himself (his role is minor), and Public Image Limited. As horrendous as you can possibly imagine.