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Double Impact (1991)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ZIGGY's EIGHTEEN ESSENTIAL FILMS

september, 2014 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 2014.

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’d come up with the same list two years from now, either.  Indeed, since this is now the second iteration of the list (you’ll note that I’m supposed to be on this lifeboat for two years; ergo, this is a biannual list), I tacked on one more rule:


4)  No more than seven films from the previous list could be selected again for this one.


That was both easier and harder to deal with than I thought (more on that in the notes at the end), but it definitely got you a different list.

And indeed, the ephemeral nature of this list of Eighteen Essential Favorites is part of its appeal, so it is now my great pleasure to share it with you.

As before, some of these movies are “great,” some are “not so great” – one, to be honest, totally sucks – and my biases are obvious.  (Spoiler: there’s still 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.  But first, curtains up!  On with the show!


II. The List, circa September, 2014.


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.



Alien (1979)


“I admire its purity.  A survivor:  unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”


I admit it: this was the toughest call to make insofar as bringing new titles onto the list.  It’s not a question of quality; this is beyond doubt one of the most effective horror movies ever made, and certainly the best such film to be made with a science fiction bent.  Indeed, it’s one of just four motion pictures that I consider to be near-perfect from a critical standpoint.  (Yes, they are all on the list this year.)  No, the hesitation comes from the fact that I’m supposed to be on a lifeboat that I modeled after a set piece from an Alien universe prequel.  That could get really unnerving.  But the movie’s just too good, and it’s just too spot on a choice for when I’m in the mood for a serious horror flick.



Basic Instinct (1992)


“I'd have to be pretty stupid to write a book about killing and then kill him the way I described in my book.  I'd be announcing myself as the killer.  I'm not stupid.”


I know what a lot of you are thinking, and I won’t deny the sensual attractions of this landmark erotic thriller.  But the fact is that there’s so much more to Basic Instinct than that, and that “so much more” is very damn interesting.  The sharp dialogue, the omnipresent sense of things hidden between the lines, the good old fashioned gumshoe trying to figure out a rough case in the shadows of San Francisco; this is modern Film Noir, folks, and it throws all the right switches.  Sharon Stone plays one hell of a femme fatale, and director Paul Verhoeven gives her an outstanding environment to play in: one that breaks past boundaries that classic Noir could never cross while still respecting its essence.



The Big Sleep (1946)

repeat selection

“I don’t like your manners.”

“And I'm not crazy about yours.  I didn't ask to see you.  I don't mind if you don't like my manners; I don't like them myself.  They are pretty bad.  I grieve over them on long winter evenings.  I don't mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle.  But don't waste your time trying to cross examine me.”


The slickest, sharpest dialogue ever written for a motion picture: that’s the first thing that earned The Big Sleep a place on the inaugural edition of my list, and it goes a long way toward keeping it on this time around.  There’s also the fact that during the past two years, I’ve praised the virtues of The Big Sleep to anyone willing to listen more often than I have for any other film.  (Indeed, thinking back on my social media conversations, I suspect the total may be close to or greater than that of all other movies I discussed combined.)   And talk about sizzling chemistry… Bogart and Bacall are at their spicy best here; the scenes filmed after they were married are even hotter than the ones shot when they were simply lovers.  You want Film Noir at its best, with a bonus of the most gorgeously quotable dialogue ever?  The Big Sleep is a must.



Blade Runner (1982/1992/2007)

repeat selection

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”


The original 1982 theatrical release may have been hobbled by studio interference, but when an alternate cut (also originally put together in 1982, but shelved) was released ten years later, the little differences resulted in what I consider to be the best feature motion picture of the color era.  What I said about it two years ago remains true today: 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 remain floored by this movie.



The Blues Brothers (1980)


“It’s a hundred and six miles to Chicago.  We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

“Hit it.”

 

The Blues Brothers is, without question, one of the single funniest – and most quotable – movies ever made.  I’ve been to more theatrical showings of this comedy than any other by far; most of them at midnight, and most of them attended in attire inspired by that of Elwood Blues.  So much funny, so much outstanding music, so impossible to go wrong.  This flick truly is a party in a box and then some.  Like Jake says, “Man, this place has got everything.”



Casablanca (1942)

repeat selection

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk into mine.”


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.  The cast is perfect.  The dialogue is outstanding.  The atmosphere is thick with danger, intrigue, and romance, but never too thick.  And though it is set on a very specific date in history, it is timeless none the less; the same old story, sure – you know the one: a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die – but one of which it is impossible to tire, even after a hundred viewings.  Casablanca is as captivating today as it was nearly seventy years ago, and I can’t imagine a version of this list could ever not include it.



Gymkata (1985)


“Burn, you bastard!”


I don’t blame you if you saw the title and did a double take.  Yes, I am well aware that this movie sucks.  It is, in fact, the worst theatrical release action movie I can think of… and that’s part of why I love it.  I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count thanks to a combination of insomnia and some unknown late night television scheduler from days gone by, and it never fails to crack me up.  Gymkata is so ridiculous that it comes back out the other side and enters sublime territory.  Case in point: the town square pommel horse.  How can you not dig the town square pommel horse?  This one’s on the list to satisfy my craving for what Blockbuster Video (may it rest in peace) used to call “Le Bad Cinema.”



Hero (2002)


“Since you wish to die, I will assist you.”


We go from one of the worst martial arts films ever made to one that can only be described as an exceptionally beautiful work of art.  Extraordinary cinematography, brilliant editing, fantastic use of color, and, of course, amazing swordplay; Hero has all of these things and more.  Watching this film is like watching a poem; it really is a museum quality experience for all of cinema’s senses.  And hey, maybe if I watch enough times over two years, I’ll pick up some Chinese language skills.  (Of course I’d be watching it in the original Chinese with subtitles.  And you should, too!)



Lifeforce (1985)

repeat selection

“I'd say she's perfect. I've been in space for six months and she looks perfect to me.”


Ah, yes… my old friend the not-so-guilty pleasure, also known as “The Naked Space Vampire Movie.”  It’s got all of the cheez of a 1970s style disaster flick combined with elements of modernized Hammer style horror and weird 1980s action/sci fi; to me, that’s several different kinds of party brought together in a single box.  As I noted two years ago, 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.  And consider it though I did, there was just no way that I could leave it off of my lifeboat.



The Maltese Falcon (1941)


“I distrust a man who says "when." If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does.”


My biggest regret regarding the first iteration of this list was my choice to leave off The Maltese Falcon, one of the crown jewels of Film Noir and perhaps the most perfectly cast movie ever made.  At the time, I’d thought that three Bogart Noir pictures might seem like saturation on an eighteen film list… and I knew it to be a dumb rationalization as soon as I’d done it.  Those other two Bogart flicks are still here, but this time, there are no silly saturation rules.  This flick really is the stuff that dreams are made of, and I could watch it every week without ever tiring of it… and that is what this list is supposed to be about, after all.



Metropolis (1927/1984)

repeat selection

“Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.”


Even now, nearly ninety years on, Fritz Lang’s vision of the future remains a breathtaking (and highly influential) one.  Lang begins with a German Expressionist foundation and makes his own brand of awesome from there, adding elements of fantasy and Noir to the science fiction to create a work of art that more than stands the test of time.  I know the purists would want me to take along the further-restored “Complete” edition of the film (which is still missing at least one scene, but that’s still a remarkable feat of footage recovery), but I’m still going with the 1984 Girogio Moroder cut, because I just can’t get enough of that rockin’ soundtrack.  (What can I say?  It works!)



North By Northwest (1959)


“Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening, to a show I was looking forward to, and I get – well – kind of unreasonable about things like that.”


And here we correct another oversight from the first iteration of this list: a film from my all-time favorite director, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, gets a much-deserved spot.  With that said, I don’t consider North by Northwest to be either the best or my favorite Hitchcock film, but the fact of the matter is that it is incredibly rewatchable… and it also lets me sneak in an additional picture that bears more than a slight resemblance to being a James Bond movie.  A great sense of adventure, outstanding direction, wonderful performances, and just the right amount of humor combine to make North by Northwest an easy choice to pull from the Hitchcock catalog.



Octopussy (1983)


“Double-0-Seven on an island populated exclusively by women? We won't see him ’til dawn!”


Anyone who knows me knows that any list of this sort made by me would have to include at least one James Bond flick, and though I have switched out last list’s title for something different, I find myself sticking with Roger Moore.  Not that I’d have doubted, but the easy rewatchability of Octopussy was proven to me on a recent trip during which I watched the movie two full times and then some, thanks to the film being part of a loop that played in the hotel lobby.  Octopussy is a rare Cold War adventure for 007 that’s down to Earth without losing its sense of fun.  It also takes wonderful advantage of being partially set in India, and Maud Adams does a great turn as Octopussy herself (for whom I think Moore’s Bond should have retired, but oh well).  This really is some of the best of Bond.



Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)


“Tell me now about entanglement.  Einstein's spooky action at a distance.  Is it related to quantum theory?”


I knew that Only Lovers Left Alive was going to be good when I first walked into the theatre, but what I experienced up on that screen blew me away.  An intellectual, philosophical, romantic vampire story that doesn’t obsess over its characters’ vampirism but instead treats it as something that just is, Only Lovers Left Alive is a feast for every sense that cinema touches.  Beautiful visuals, a magnificent soundtrack, fantastically well-delivered dialogue delivered by an outstanding cast (how could one possibly go wrong with a lead pair like Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston?)… there’s just so much to enjoy here, and so very many details that I doubt a viewing could pass without my catching another delicious morsel that I hadn’t noticed before.  Wonderful.



Predator 2 (1990)

repeat selection

“You can’t see the eyes of the demon until him come callin’.”

 

No, it’s not the greatest motion picture ever made by a longshot, but Predator 2 is always on my personal short list when I open up the video cabinet and look for a random movie to watch.  It’s fast paced, it’s fun, it’s infinitely rewatchable, and most of all, it’s just plain entertaining.  Indeed, Predator 2 epitomizes the point of why I craft this list the way that I do.  Sometimes you just want to kick back, let your brain go, and enjoy the action light show.  For me, no movie satisfies that urge better than this one; it is, truly, the very heart of this list.  (Bonus: it’s also surprisingly progressive.)



The Shadow (1994)


“How did you know where to find me? How did you know who I am?”

“The Shadow knows!”


The Shadow tends to get very little respect as part of the pantheon of hero movies, but it is none the less my favorite among them.  I love the character, I love the world he inhabits – he is a tried and true Art Deco dweller if there ever was one – and I love the way that director Russell Mulcahy and his cast and crew turn this picture into an old school radio play put to film.  Seen through that lens, the movie is brilliant, and its many flaws become not simply inconsequential; rather, they help to give the film even more flavor.  To me, The Shadow is wonderful fun.



Star Wars (1977)

repeat selection

“An elegant weapon… from a more civilized age.”


As it has been for so many millions if not billions of others, Star Wars – not episode anything, thank you; the title on that first poster run is just Star Wars – has been the single greatest pop culture influence on my life.  I stopped counting the number of times I’ve seen the movie at 300 (and that was years ago), and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching it despite knowing just about every word and musical cue down to the tenth of a second.  I know it’s not flawless, but it’s a pure adventure tale that has spoken directly to me since I was a kid.  For me, Star Wars is like an old friend that always brings me back to my comfort zone whenever it starts to play, and it never wears out is welcome.



The Thin Man (1934)


“The important thing is the rhythm.  Always have rhythm in your shaking.  Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”


Imagine Film Noir as comedy, and you’ve got The Thin Man, adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammett into one of the most delightful motion pictures ever made.  William Powell and Myrna Loy have beautiful screen chemistry (think of them as a lighthearted analog to Bogart and Bacall), and the story into which they’re placed is as sharp and snappy as it is fun.  It’s impossible to watch this movie and not be cheered by it, and the pace is so quick and the dialogue so rich that one could watch it scores of times and still not catch everything.  The Thin Man is one of those rare comedies that drives one to laugh while still demanding that one’s brain stay engaged.  Now that’s my kind of fun.





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.  As was the case two years ago, I know that I was surprised (and not) by a few things.  For example…


1) I gave up on any type of self-censorship for the sake of an artificial balance this time around, and I think the list is better for it.  One of the more direct results is that it became more Noir-heavy, in classic terms and beyond.  A large part of that came from giving up the struggle to have only two Bogart pictures on the list.  There was just no way that I could justify removing Casablanca or The Big Sleep, and to deny The Maltese Falcon again would have been an unforgivable travesty.  Once that hurdle was out of the way, the rest started falling into place, though the process by which that choice was made brought up yet another major decision point…


2) I couldn’t let go of Lifeforce.  My original guideline for the number of repeats I would allow to come onto this list from the 2012 iteration was six: a third of the total seemed like a nice, reasonable number that still allowed for plenty of freshness.  But as I set about the task of trimming what came before, I just couldn’t hit that magic number.  Predator 2 is the heart of the entire concept upon which this list is based, five others stood out as absolute musts… and there, on the other side of that awful line, stood Lifeforce, and I just couldn’t say no to it.  The cheesy fun was just too cool to pass up, and so I changed the rule to allow for seven repeats.


3) My all time favorite character, Dracula, is not on this list.  I love Dracula, and always have, and considering that he and Sherlock Holmes are in an eternal cage match to be the single most adapted literary character of all time, it’s not like I don’t have over a hundred movies to pick from.  But when all was said and done, if I wasn’t going to repeat the Coppola version from 1992, there wasn’t one that stood out quite far enough to make the Essential Eighteen.  I’m guessing that leaving my fanged friend out in the cold will be my biggest regret about this list come next week.  (For the record, after the adjustment noted in point number two, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Cobra were the last two films from the 2012 edition of the list eliminated from contention to repeat on this one.)


4) The most difficult decisions regarding new films involved horror movies.  Alien was the last movie I decided to add, despite the fact that I consider it to be critically perfect.  (In case you were wondering, the other three movies to which I also apply that distinction – all of which made the list this time – are Blade Runner, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon.)  Meanwhile, once I eliminated Jason X from repeat contention, I couldn’t come up with a slasher to take its place, despite my love for the genre.  Two possibilities sprang to mind, but eventually, I decided to pass on them; I suspect that this will be my second regret about this list come next week.


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, 2014

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