Thursday, January 09, 2014

Five Favorite Films

In case you didn't know, Rotten Tomatoes has a wonderful column on their website where they ask movie people to list five of their personal favorite movies, with or without explanation. It was interesting to learn that filmmaker Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers, 2012) chose the Robert Altman obscurity Brewster McCloud (1970) along with Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose (1978); and that Mr. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe is a huge fan of one of my favorite Powell and Pressburger films, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Unfortunately, it's not a feature they update regularly enough, but there are several pages of entries to keep you amused for hours. In gazing at my film library, I thought I would pull out five go-to movies and do a list of my own.

Breaking Away (1979) directed by Peter Yates

Jackie Earle Haley and Amy Wright
The essential coming of age in small town America film, and one of the best sports movies ever. It prefigures the work of John Hughes as well as some other favorite films of mine that deal with young people trying to find their place in the world, specifically Diner (1982) and Fandango (1985). In a way, it even anticipates Hoosiers (1986) and future Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire (1981). John Hughes cast Paul Dooley (the father in Breaking Away) as Molly Ringwald's father in Sixteen Candles (1984). Dennis Christopher (one of the breakout stars of Breaking Away) had a small cameo in Chariots of Fire. Coincidence?

Funny Bones (1995) written & directed by Peter Chelsom

Lee Evans, Freddie Davies and George Carl
It's true, the man who directed Hannah Montana: The Movie also made one of my all-time favorite films. Jerry Lewis probably gave the best performance of his career (alongside Scorsese's The King of Comedy, 1982) as the beloved showbiz Dad of a chronically unfunny comic played by Oliver Platt. It's a story about families, dark secrets and coming to terms with who we really are. It's also fairly riotous thanks to comedian Lee Evans who gives a knockout performance that stretches the boundaries between funny and disturbing. Leslie Caron, Richard Griffiths, Ian McNeice and Oliver Reed are also along for the ride. However, the film really belongs to a pair of gifted performers played by George Carl and Freddie Davies. Their occupation as a critical component to a funhouse ride is a scream.

The Hairdresser's Husband (1990) written & directed by Patrice Leconte

Youssef Hamid and Jean Rochefort
Jean Rochefort is one of those great actors (like the late, great Peter O'Toole) who is able to draw you into his character's internal life with a single look. Whether he is playing a crooked clergyman in a period piece like Tavernier's Let Joy Reign Supreme (1974), or an aspiring adulterous husband in a breezy farce like Pardon Mon Affaire (1976) (which was later remade almost shot-for-shot by Gene Wilder as The Woman in Red, 1984) Rochefort's eyes never fail to hypnotize you. The plot of Patrice Leconte's film is so benign it wouldn't make much sense to describe. It's about a man who always dreamed he'd marry a hairdresser (title starting to make sense now?). Like most of Leconte's gentle yet quasi-mystical films (The Girl on the Bridge; The Man on the Train also with Rochefort) this one packs an unexpected wallop at the end. Rochefort's dancing is unforgettable too.

Song of Summer (1968) written & directed by Ken Russell
(part of the essential Ken Russell at the BBC DVD set)

Max Adrian, Christopher Gable and Maureen Pryor
I didn't know much about English composer Frederick Delius until I watched this brief (72-minute) but spellbinding film that was originally produced for the BBC's Omnibus television series. What makes it spellbinding, besides the subject matter, are the performances of Max Adrian, Christopher Gable and Maureen Pryor. Adrian plays Delius, completely blind and near-death. Gable plays Eric Fenby, his young amanuensis who is tasked with setting down in writing the final symphony in Delius' head. Pryor plays Jelka Rosen, Delius' devoted and long-suffering wife. It's remarkable how Russell is able to capture the routines and the mundane details of these people's lives without an ounce of tedium. The music plays a major character too. Thank God Fenby came along when he did.

A Tale of Time Lost (1964) directed by Aleksandr Ptushko

Sergey Martinson
Ukrainian-born Ptushko is considered one of the pioneers of stop-motion animation as well as a master visual stylist. Virtually unknown outside of Russia, Ptushko's epic fantasy films are rooted in Slavic mythology yet seem just as relevant to a western audience today as they did fifty years ago in his native country. This particular Ptushko fantasy is pure fairy tale (with nods to Chaplin and Keaton), complete with battling wizards, an enchanted forest and body swapping. What's not to love? It's also one of Ptushko's few (if not perhaps only) films that isn't set in a far off land. It's interesting to see an urban 1960s Russian metropolis (yes they had cars, street vendors and even traffic cops) culturally preserved like this. Still, it's the magic in a Ptushko film we remember most.

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