Contrary to popular belief, my favourite movie of all time is not Meatballs III: Summer Job, it’s Fargo. All hilarious witticisms aside, this should not be breaking news for anyone reading this. Anyone who has had the (dis)pleasure of speaking to me for an extended period of time will know that I am infatuated with four things: the television programme Curb Your Enthusiasm; the comedian Stewart Lee; the sport of Rugby Union; and, above all else, the film Fargo. Without any hyperbole, I would have seen Fargo between fifty and a hundred times. When I watch it now, I say the dialogue along with the characters, as though I’m playing some weird kind of Minnesotan karaoke and there’s a little red ball bouncing over every ‘yah’ (a word said 181 times in the film).
What is the most important movie ever made? Everyone has a different answer to this conundrum. Is it Battleship Potemkin? Is it Man with a Movie Camera? Is it Nanook of the North? Is it 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is it Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow? For me, however, the answer is The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s directorial debut. The 400 Blows is responsible for the likes of Godard, Coppola, Spielberg and Scorsese. It sparked the French New Wave, shaped the New Hollywood movement, and influenced the rise of independent filmmaking in the 90s. Every one of its 100 minutes is ground-breaking, momentous and influential. It is one of the first films where realism and style coexist in perfect harmony, and is frequently cited as being one of the most flawless films ever made. And it does what all my favourite movies do: its surface storyline is specific and focused, but acts as a metaphor for some universal human concern.
“I killed him for money, and for a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.”
So says Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which is for many the quintessential film noir. In many respects, it is typical of the film noir genre. Visually, John F. Seitz’s photography emphasises chiaroscuro shadows and obscure angles in homage to German Expressionism. Thematically, it embodies all the cynicism that characterises the noir genre, a genre that emerged amidst the trauma and depletion of World War II and its immediate aftermath. Structurally, it is the story of one disillusioned man who becomes embroiled in a world of crime, and is seduced and corrupted by a ‘femme fatale’. And it is all wrapped up in the seedy world of wealth that is Los Angeles, depicting the details of LA in a beautifully subtle manner. But Double Indemnity is more than just a ‘typical’ film noir; it is also the best films noir ever made.
Annie Hall feels like the work of a madman more than any other film I’ve seen. Sure, I’ve seen the works of Russ Meyer, of Harmony Korine and of Gaspar Noe, and their films are clearly infused with madness. Don’t get me wrong – Lars von Trier, Alejandro Jodorowsky and John Waters are all crazy in their own particular way. Werner Herzog continued an interview after being shot by a sniper in the abdomen, jumped onto a cactus patch after accidentally setting fire to a dwarf, and literally ate his own shoes once, and yet, to me, his films seem positively serene compared to Annie Hall. Annie Hall is so manic, so neurotic, and so scattershot. Woody Allen directed, wrote and starred in the film, and Allen’s auteurist grip on the film ensures that every frame oozes with his neuroticism. Annie Hall is, quite simply, a portal into Woody Allen’s psyche.
The Night of the Hunter is actor Charles Laughton’s one and only dabble into the dark arts of directing. Maligned by both critics and audiences on its release for being too offbeat and fanciful, Laughton was discouraged from ever directing another film, despite having a script for Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead ready for him to direct. It was decades before The Night of the Hunter was re-evaluated by critics and audiences, and has since been widely considered one of the most darkly beautiful films ever made. Now, it is quite simply considered to be one of the greatest American movies of all time.
No film warrants the tag ‘this film isn’t for everyone’ quite like The Mirror. If there is a single film that encapsulates what the word ‘avant-garde’ really means, then it is The Mirror. Trivial nuisances like plot, dialogue and character are forgotten in service of creating an overall cinematic mood. It uses stark images to assault the audience and provoke from us a purely emotional, rather than intellectual, response. In other words, it is a collection of visually powerful scenes with few overarching links between them. In other words, it’s extremely bizarre. Consequently, there will be people who find The Mirror about as riveting as an audiobook of Ulysses read by Bernie Fraser.
Where do you start with Citizen Kane? Still to this day, Citizen Kane is anecdotally considered to be the greatest movie of all time. Ask the average cashier at your local cinema what they think the greatest film of all time is considered to be, and they’re unlikely to throw The Rules of the Game or Vertigo at you. Undoubtedly, it is perfect in every single way. And I mean every single way – not just standard, easily identifiable proficiencies like acting, writing and cinematography, but more intangible brilliances like ambition, innovation and scale. Consequently, it is the most analysed film ever. In the 70 years since its inception, many people have tried to ‘get’ Citizen Kane, as if it is a film with one single ‘answer’.