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Double Impact (1991)
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september, 2012 edition

I. Introduction.

Most critics have an All Time Best List.  For reasons outlined here, I am not a huge fan of this concept.  I’m more interested in the idea of a Favorites List, and this post is my version thereof for the year 2012.

The sole criterion by which this list was created is as follows:

“If you were stuck on a lifeboat for two years and had access to a media device that could only store eighteen essential films, what films would you choose?”

That’s it. 

I know some people who could do this easily with slots to spare, but for someone like me – and, I suspect, like you – who truly loves movies, eighteen is a very small number to stretch over a span of two years… and that’s assuming I really get rescued on time.  (I picked a lifeboat, by the way, because I don’t like desert islands.  I also assume a comfortable lifeboat with a full bar, like Charlize Theron’s detachable quarters in Prometheus.)  With that in mind, I wasn’t about to limit myself to some highfalutin’ “critic’s list” – I want to be entertained.  And so, I came up with a three-pronged litmus test when determining what movies would be my best answers to the question posed above.

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1) As an absolute requirement, does this movie have a high rewatchability value for me?  If I can’t imagine watching it at least four times a year (and probably more), forget it.  (A lot of “great” films died on this question.)

Further, one or both of the following must also be satisfied:

2) Is this a flick that I find myself automatically reaching for when I say to myself “I want to watch a movie”?  This question produced the most interesting results, I think.

3) Does this movie have a profound effect on me on a personal level?  Call this the personality snapshot.

Despite being an analysis of my own behavior, some of the answers to these questions surprised me… and I think they’ll surprise you, too.  They’re not the same answers I’d have given two years (or even six months) ago, and I doubt that I’ll come up with the same list two years from now, either.  But the ephemeral nature of this list of Eighteen Essential Favorites is part of its appeal, and it is now my great pleasure to share it with you.

Some of these movies are “great,” some are “not so great,” and my biases are obvious.  (Spoiler: there’s not a RomCom in the bunch… though there are some epic romances.)  I’ll let you in on a few more secrets after the list is done, and after that, I would seriously love to see your comments. (Just tweet me or drop me an email.)  But first, curtains up!  On with the show!

II. The List, circa September, 2012.

The films are presented in alphabetical order by title; no “order of preference” is intended, nor should one be inferred.  Titles that appear as hyperlinks link to full length reviews on this site.

The Big Sleep (1946)

The slickest, sharpest dialogue ever written for a motion picture: that’s the first thing that earns The Big Sleep a place on my list.  (I think I’d be spending a lot of time on my theoretical lifeboat trying to memorize all of that dialogue.)  Then there’s the not-so-small fact that it’s being delivered in sizzlingly sexy fashion by the dynamic duo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose chemistry here is the stuff of legends.  These two factors lead to the third: namely, that this also happens to be the last great example of Golden Age Film Noir, a genre that to me is the very definition of the term “Classic Cinema.” 

Blade Runner (1982/1992/2007)

The fact that it went from being a damn good movie to the greatest motion picture of the modern era by virtue of Pandora’s Box being opened in 1992 in the form of the theatrical release of a “Director’s Cut” (later superseded by an even better “Final Cut” for video in 2007) is a sin that I’m more than willing to forgive, because the results speak for themselves.  Blade Runner is every screen story I love rolled into one: noir, cyberpunk, dystopia, science fiction, non-saccharine romance, existentialism… and all of it is presented flawlessly within the most perfectly realized atmosphere in the history of Earthbound sci fi.  An artistic triumph, a marvel of technical execution; both as a critic and as a fan, I am floored by this movie.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

I have a very longstanding affinity for the character of Dracula, so of course one of his movies is on my list.  I prefer Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the character, but Francis Ford Coppola’s romanticized take on Stoker’s novel, while certainly not perfect, makes for the best overall Dracula film: a lush, breathtaking affair to be admired not just as a story, but as a visual feast.  With its vibrant imagery and old world effects, Bram Stoker’s Dracula truly is a work of art.

Casablanca (1942)

If I had to take just one film from the black and white era of Hollywood and call it “the best,” Casablanca would be it.  Whenever I’m aware that it’s on, I have to watch it, and that kind of magnetism makes adding Casablanca to this list a no-brainer.  It’s a story that only gets richer with each repeat viewing, presented by one of the greatest casts ever assembled.  Bogart, Bergman, Rains, Lorre… the list goes on and on, and each one gives a career highlight performance.  This is one classic flick that doesn’t just live up to its popular hype; it’s better.

Cobra (1986)

I consider the 1980s and early 1990s to be the Golden Age of Action Movies, and to me, Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra is the quintessential 80s action flick.  It’s absurdly over the top and I love every minute of it, from the grocery store opening (random violence against a shopping cart for the win!) to the larger than life chase scenes to one of the truly great psycho villains in all of film (played with perfectly hammed menace by Brian Thompson).  Stuff goes “boom” in spectacular fashion, the soundtrack rocks, and the fun never stops.  For me, Cobra is the definitive “pizza and beer flick.”

History of the World, Part I (1981)

Whenever I’m looking for a straight-up laugh, this is always the first movie I reach for.  My bias is simple: I’m a history nerd, so I get all of the jokes, not to mention that Mel Brooks is in extremely fine form here as a writer.  (I actually quote this movie on an almost-daily basis; it’s usually a variant on “Seize this, honkus!” )  The “loosely tied together skits” format lets Brooks go all over the map with his humor, with an end result that could just as easily have been called Every Type of Filmed Comedy Presented in One Sitting. Perfect!

Jason X (2001)

I’ve always loved slasher flicks, but when it comes time to grab one out of the video cabinet, it’s Jason X that I reach for more often than any other.  It’s not the best by any critic’s standard, but for me as a fan, it’s the biggest “party in a box.”  Everyone involved knew that it was going to be the swan song for Jason as we knew him, and they had a blast with it, from the cheesy one liners to the very creative (and quite numerous) kills to Kane Hodder delivering his meanest ever performance as the bad man with the machete.  To my mind, the spirit of ridiculous fun combined with over the top violence is what makes this genre so appealing in the first place, and on that score, there really isn’t another flick that represents slasher filmdom as wonderfully as Jason X.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

If you weren’t into the cyber scene during the rise of the modern net and the dot com boom, you just can’t understand how cool or how funny Johnny Mnemonic is.  It’s the future everyone was sure would happen… only it was partially obsolete and entirely ridiculous as soon as the movie came out.  For me, this is a fun blast from the past: nostalgia that combines “what really was” with “can you believe anyone thought it would be like that?”  And hey, the “room service rant” is one that’s definitely worth committing to memory.

Lifeforce (1985)

Also known as “The Naked Space Vampire Movie.”  I know that it’s cheesy and utterly overblown, but that’s part of why I enjoy it so much, and why I keep coming back to it over and over again.  Vampires, Halley’s Comet, Mathilda May’s wardrobe, London getting the disaster movie treatment… what’s not to have fun with?  Lifeforce has long been an October staple for me, eagerly devoured like particularly delicious trick or treat candy that I know is bad for me but that I love anyway.

Machete (2010)

This flick is insane in the best ways possible.  Combining the over the top spirit of old school action with the over the top visuals of modern filmmaking and no desire at all to hold anything back, Machete is a go-to crazy action party flick of a type that I seriously didn’t think it was possible to make anymore.  Every sequence has some element to it that makes me grin.  Bonus: best on-camera use of a human intestine ever.

Metropolis (1927/1984)

I find it rather amusing that my first viewing of this ultimate triumph of German silent film happened during a high school English class.  What can I say?  The teacher was cool, and she wanted to broaden our horizons.  At least in my case, it worked; I’ve been enthralled by Metropolis ever since.  Not only is it one of the most influential films ever made (it’s fun to watch and pick out where other films have lifted from it during the 85 years since its release), but it’s also a damn interesting one on all sorts of levels.  Purists may balk at this, but I’m choosing the Giorgio Moroder restoration from the 1980s to take with me on my lifeboat and not the recently spliced “Complete” cut.  Why?  Because if I’m stuck for two years, I want to hear Freddie Mercury and Adam Ant while I watch, thank you.

Moonraker (1979)

I’ll admit it: for me, this one’s the biggest surprise on the list.  That it’s a James Bond movie is no surprise; I love the Bond series, and reach for 007 flicks on a regular basis.  The surprise is that I don’t really consider this to be the best Bond film (or even one of the top five) in the critical sense, nor do I consider Roger Moore to be the best Bond in the critical sense (even though he is the one I started with).  But as it turns out, when I say to myself “I think I’ll watch a Bond movie,” Moonraker is the one I’m most likely to grab.  Why?  Because it’s the most fun, plain and simple.  It’s all about the entertainment, and James Bond and Jaws saving the Earth while on board a space station is very damn entertaining.

The Ninth Gate (1999)

Given the apocalyptic obsessions of movies released in 1999, I really wasn’t expecting much from The Ninth Gate, but by the time it was done, I’d discovered my favorite movie of the year and my favorite devil flick of all time.  Creepy and studiously delightful, dark and wickedly intelligent, wacky and oddly profound – Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate is all of these things and more.  I consider this literary caper to one of the most vastly underrated films of the past twenty years, and an easy pick for after the sun goes down.

Possible Worlds (2000)

I discovered this movie quite by accident one rainy night in Vancouver.  Stories of a metaphysical/existential nature fascinate me, and of all of those that I’ve seen put to film, Possible Worlds has proven to be the most fascinating.  It doesn’t necessarily go into deep discussions about all of the questions that it poses, and it certainly doesn’t answer most of them, but to me, that’s part of what makes this film work.  It sets its stage and tells its story, and then it lets the viewer do the thinking.  Possible Worlds is as simple or as complex as you want it to be; I find it simply beautiful and thoughtfully complex.

Predator 2 (1990)

A realization about this film is what prompted me to write up this list in the first place.  When I say to myself “I want to watch a movie” on any given day and reach into my video cabinet, Predator 2 is more likely to be on my short list of selections than anything else, regardless of genre.  I don’t know why; it’s just my random go-to flick.  Can’t say that I ever get tired of watching it, either.  I think there’s a lesson in this: sometimes it’s best to just shut up and let oneself be entertained.

Star Wars (1977)

Though Star Wars is not the first movie that I ever saw in a theatre, it’s the first one that I have any real memory of seeing.  This is the movie that I grew up with, and it has easily been the biggest pop culture influence on my life.  “Profound effect” just isn’t a strong enough turn of phrase here, and I know that roughly a billion people can relate.  I have seen Star Wars over 300 times, and I don’t think it’ll ever get old.  The Force is strong with this one.

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Some movies just sneak up on you and grab hold with a force you’d never have thought possible; Tron: Legacy was one such movie for me.  When I saw it in the theatre for the first time, it moved me in a way that hadn’t happened since I’d seen a film that started with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  A couple more theatrical viewings and several home screenings later, it still holds that same power.  Perhaps it’s because it bookends my experience with Johnny Mnemonic above, combining what really happened to the future (our present) with an updated set of possibilities, or maybe it’s the immersiveness of its world on every level from sights to sounds.  Whatever it is, I’m hooked.

White Zombie (1932)

I absolutely love old school horror.  Though it’s not a product of the juggernaut Universal Studios, the independently produced White Zombie proves to be the finest example of the genre/period in almost every respect, from script to direction to effects.  It also happens to feature the career-best performance of one of my all-time favorite actors: the great Bela Lugosi, here chilling the bones as the candle-whittling Murder Legendre.  It took less than ten seconds for the film’s opening chant to grab my attention; many years and many viewings later, it’s still got it.

III. Four Observations.

I am absolutely certain that many of you facepalmed when you saw at least one of the films on this list, and that all of you shook your heads at several.  I know that I was surprised by a few things.  For example…

1) My all-time favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock, is not represented on The List.  Even though I love most of his films and will generally watch any of them given the opportunity to do so, I don’t really have a “go-to favorite.”  My attachment is to Hitchcock’s body of work and not to any specific picture, and I just couldn’t find one individual film to elevate above the rest.

2) I picked Moonraker.  James Bond movies presented a similar “body of work” dilemma to the one I faced with Hitchcock films; I came very close to leaving them completely off The List.  Eventually, though, I realized that there was a core group of Bond flicks that I habitually come back to, so I gave it another look.  I know that Goldfinger would have been the more “respectable” choice, but being honest about applying the methods I outlined earlier, much to my own amazement, Moonraker won the day.

3) I didn’t pick The Maltese Falcon.  By all rights, The Maltese Falcon fits every guideline I set for “making” The List, but I’d already chosen two Humphrey Bogart flicks from the 1940s, and there was no way that I could justify eliminating either one of them.  At the end of the day, my best explanation for leaving off The Maltese Falcon is “saturation avoidance.”

4) Movies are not just a visual medium.  Though cheese-master Roger Corman has long insisted that a movie’s soundtrack is of little consequence, I very much beg to differ, and The List makes that quite clear.  I consider the scores from Blade Runner and Tron: Legacy to be the two most “listenable” standalone soundtracks of all time; both get regular visits on my iPod.  The rockin’ soundtracks to Cobra and to Giorgio Moroder’s take on Metropolis used to be staples for my car stereo.  Star Wars has the symphonic soundtrack of the gods.  White Zombie first grabbed my attention with its opening chant.  I think you get the point now, right?

I have more observations where those came from, but I think that I’ve said enough for the time being.  Now I want to know your thoughts!  What do you think of The List?  What do you like, and what made your jaw drop?  What’s on your List?  Drop me a note!

- Written by Ziggy Berkeley, September 14, 2012

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This article originally appeared on "The Cheez Blog" (a former companion site to this one)

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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