Seldom Said

Sunday, January 29, 2006

This is a must see!

I recently enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in State and Main, which is a clever and unexpectedly heart-warming comedy by David Mamet, so I'm looking forward to checking him out in the title role of Capote when it comes out over here. After reading about the latter film in the paper this weekend, I was reminded of where I first came across the ever-dependable Hoffman, in the painfully black comedy Happiness.

Happiness is one of those films that I was completely blown away by in the cinema, but which I have never quite managed to watch again, despite having a copy on DVD. Although I'm sure that I'll admire it every bit as much on a second viewing, my memories of the unflinchingly squirm-worthy subject matter always gives me pause. Other examples of this phenomenon include Barton Fink (which two friends that I saw it with utterly reviled, but which I still think is magnificent) and Lost In Translation (which I'm beginning to suspect was never as good as I thought it was after all).

This started me pondering: what it is that makes me really enthusiastic about particular films? And, in a related but quite distinct vein: what makes me want to watch certain films again and again? Now, it's quite rare that you'll hear me telling you how much I hated a film. It's not, as one friend has remarked, that I think absolutely everything is wonderful. Admittedly, I do find it very easy to like films and I'm not at all hesitant when it comes to waxing lyrical about the ones that catch my fancy. I don't often take a strong dislike to films, but when a film really offends I have been known to walk down the street afterwards angrily denouncing it. If it doesn't do much for me, I just don't talk about it.

There are other films in which I have found much to admire, but which I ultimately didn't really like at all and can find no good reason to see again. I'm thinking here mostly of The Man Who Wasn't There, which will probably ensure that my otherwise fairly comprehensive Coen Brothers collection will remain forever incomplete. This is a powerful and immaculately constructed film, but it succeeds so well in its portrayal of the irredeemably cold central character that I was left without any feelings of affection for it. Then there are those highly praised films whose tone or subject matter (or perhaps sheer perversity on my part) means that I have never even managed to watch them even once, notably The Godfather and Schindler's List, which for all the plaudits that they have received still don't quite manage to conjure up the requisite enthusiasm.

It's not that I'm completely obsessed with feel-good films, you understand, even if I must admit to watching When Harry Met Sally on an increasingly regular basis. Granted, the films that I'm likely to think of first in a list of favourites- Strictly Ballroom, The Hudsucker Proxy, Almost Famous, Royal Tenenbaums and Amelie - do tend to be romantic, even sentimental, but I think that these titles spring to mind because they are the type of film that I never grow tired of watching. If I sat down and made a considered list of my all-time top 100 (shudder at the thought), these would still top the bill, but they would undoubtedly be in more diverse company.

So, what is it that makes me really love a film, as distinct from just liking or admiring it? Humour and whimsy certainly seem to feature prominently, but I also like quirky characters, visual inventiveness, emotional resonance, clever plots... well, you get the idea. I've always rated Terry Gilliam's dark whimsies very highly (although the lighter and unfairly maligned Adventures of Baron Munchausen is my favourite) and anything by the Coen Brothers (with the previously mentioned exception) is pretty much guaranteed consideration. I also wouldn't hesitate to include both Bill and Ted movies in my list of favourites, not to mention LA Confidential, Leon and The Usual Suspects. And then there's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Oh and Moulin Rouge and...

I'd best stop there before I get carried away.

Notice anything missing? Yup, that's right: I haven't mentioned Peter Jackson or the Wachowski Brothers, and I certainly haven't mentioned George Lucas. This is where my effort to stick to my original objective become unstuck, you see. Because, while The Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies (but probably not either of the Star Wars ones) would make it into my top 50, they somehow feel like a different art-form altogether. Indiana Jones, on the other hand... No, no, no: enough already! The same applies to the animated masterpieces of Pixar, as well as Disney's finer moments: I love 'em to bits, but it's hard to know how to compare them with the likes of Casablanca or even Star Wars. Ah, but Spirited Away though...

Where am I going with this? If I'm not prepared to compare rom-coms with blockbusters or quirky indies with animated films, then how can I ever compose a definitive list of my favourite movies? Well, that's simple: I can't. It's a dumb idea. I'm sure I'm not the first person to whinge about this, but I don't care: it's worth saying again. Top ten films to watch when you're feeling a bit glum? No problem. Top five films I've watched in the last six months? Easy-peasy. Favourite Coen Brothers film? You already have that one. Compiling a list of the best of the best, however, always seems like an exercise in futility.

Which brings me back to where I started: enthusiasm. Lists of favourite movies and the ubiquitous five star ratings are all very well, but find it much more interesting to read about why someone loves a particular film, rather than how they rank it in their all-time greatest list of the Best Movies In The World... Ever! One of the reasons that I continue to read Empire (in spite of its obsession with lists) is for the in-depth reviews, but I am frequently irritated by the way that the text of the review seem to be at odds with the rating. It makes me happy that I read the online version of the Guardian's Friday Review section: for some reason, they still haven't managed to transfer the star ratings from the paper copy to the PDF, so I am happily forced to read the actual text of the review.

So, how can we counter the insidious effects of these relentless ratings and rankings? Easy. If someone tells you that a film is fabulous and a must-see, demand to know why. When you're scanning the film reviews, don't just look at the star rating: read the review. The next time you rent a DVD, resist the temptation to pick one from the 'best' list; seek out those hidden gems instead. And since revolution always starts at home, I'll set the ball rolling over the next few weeks by telling you why I love some of the films that I've mentioned here.

Reviews not rankings! Opinions not scores! Down with consensus! This has been a partly political broadcast. Do not adjust your set. That is all.


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