I once watched a teen movie where the writer set up a plot device like this: You can tell who your soulmate is by listing your three favourite films and the reasons why you like them. If another person were to have the same films then you and they were meant to be ‘together’. Simplistic, but a cute writing technique. It let the filmmaker skip right over a big chunk of romantic development and had the audience feeling like they knew it all in advance and were empowered as some kind of fourth wall jumping matchmaker. Great but dorky scene, it has always stuck with me. (I forget what the movie was.)
The reason I told you that was because I thought it would be a good lead in to me telling you about some of my favourite films and why. Now I am definitely not looking for my soulmate, but I do enjoy explicating my own thoughts for myself and others, I’m just like that. There are lots of criteria I could use to evaluate a good movie: it might be seminal, be the best of a good director, technically superior, be zeitgeisty, critically dense, fun to watch, whatever. Lots of other reasons too, too many to list. My personal criteria though are very simple. That is, that it should be a film that I like to watch at least a few times and from which I can learn something new every time.
So, the list is as follows as of September 2016.
I love this film for it’s unabashed use of a totally charismatic protagonist to give the film appeal and then the sly way it nuances her with slightly unethical acts. It’s like one of those candies that is so sweet, but has a really adult flavour in the middle to give it zest and grownup appeal. Ellen Page of course puts in a jaw dropping performance. The woman has more acting range than any performer I have seen. You could write a textbook on facial animation just by cataloguing her work on this film.
The thematic motif is easy to read and signposted with a nice formal structure. The animated credits and titles immediately cue the viewer to the type of genre savvy project this is with no muss or fuss. There is a genre signposting audio gag that has me cracking up every time (think daytime soaps and see if you can find it). But most of all it is a good, well crafted, honest story delivered by great performers. Did I mention how much I love the performances in this film? And the dialogue is super tightly woven. It advances the plot, builds character, and illuminates the mental world of the film, often in just a few words. I am inspired by the scriptwriting in this movie.
Also I like quirk cinema. It is just so cute and fun, and this is a great example of the nuanced art direction typical of the genre.
Well what can’t you say about The Incredibles? It is the quintessential 21st century animated feature (thus far). Beautifully designed, lavish in budget and such care has been taken on all aspects of the craft that it is just a monumental achievement in animation. Fans of world building can’t help but love the retro future art direction and the mashup of sixties spy, adventure and superhero tropes. The real appeal of course is in the wonderfully human story. A good family affirming plot goes a long way to making a film satisfying and giving us a reason to root for the protagonist and this is a really nice one (plot that is).
Character driven dialogue and even better, character driven action ties it all tightly together and avoids any funny business for the sake of funny business which can be a tedium in lesser animated features. It’s great to watch such a perfectly designed blend of adult and kid appeals and listening to the DVD commentary about how that came to pass is absolute gold. I have nothing bad to say about this movie.
Ah. Mildred Pierce. What to think about this classic forties film noir? That the DOP really understood the techniques of german expressionism and used them to perfect effect, giving the audience exactly tuned lighting cues to the mood and gravity of the scene? That it uses all the good stuff: guns, money, lust and betrayal and a perfectly coiffed femme fatale to tell a story that is daring and progressively feminist? That it features a tragic heroine who wrestles with a mother’s knowledge of how she is held captive by love for her daughter? Great stuff.
Then of course we get to the real meat of the story where the film shows its quality. Once the Veda character grows up and things start to spiral out of control the film has the most wonderful, tense onrushing momentum. It just rolls on and on like a train wreck that you can’t turn your eyes away from. Just like in the finales of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, the viewer is simply wound up like an emotional spring, waiting for something to snap. Tension, magnificently done. What a film.
Well I am an animator, it is only natural that there be more than one animated feature in this list. Mulan is a full blown Disney 2D film for theatrical release. With that many talented folks putting their best into it the film has to be decent, and I like this one best of them all I think. Naturally the animation is tight and the character designs express what they are supposed to and are designed for powerful storytelling articulation. For Disney these things are par for the course, but that doesn’t diminish the achievement and I think it only fair to give credit where it is due.
Mulan is an example of a foreign film picking and choosing acceptable tropes from an overseas culture and presenting them to a domestic audience. It seems a little heavy handed at times, with the awfully unimaginative and derivative pseudo-chinese score and the simplified family honour themes which are little more than an ignorant and childishly simplified projection of old fashioned yellow peril cliches. But I like that because it makes those writing and design techniques obvious and reminds me of how the same techniques underly even the most nuanced stories and designs. It’s obvious, but so is every story if you know what to look for and I enjoy this film because it reminds me of that every time I watch it.
Another interesting point is that this is the first feature where Disney used digitally painted backgrounds (Corel Painter, if memory serves). They’ve approached the new technology a bit tentatively and the backgrounds are less complex than usual. Not simple, exactly, they just have fewer frills, and it is easier to analyse them for composition and to work out exactly what these great layout artist think is necessary and what is extraneous. Also, lovely characterful work on the effects animation. It isn’t often that effects animators get to impart such an obvious project specific twist to their design but they have here and it is great fun to look at.
And it’s a cracking story with a likeable main character. Which is the whole point, really.
Yes okay, I know a film like this usually wouldn’t be in a list like this but I think this film is overlooked. It has formal qualities that lend it a very strong appeal. Alien 3 is a masterpiece of modern gothic. It would be impossible to come up with a scnenario that more aptly expresses the confinement motif of the gothic: the characters are marooned in space, in an abandoned factory which they cannot leave, with a group of religious fundamentalists who are clinical psychopaths. And it is dark and cold. Top that, I dare you. There is a gruesomely smashed robot to stand in for the portent of death and the enemy is both within and without. Gothic with a capital G.
That is fun enough, but what I really love about his film is the shot composition and lighting design. Almost every shot is perfectly proportioned according to classical notions of the composition of light and dark with wonderful use of chiaroscuro and shape blending to produce a really creepy environment. The director of photography has done a very solid job. Every shot reminds you of something you have learned about values and composition. The lighting is uniformly beautifully modelled, a real tour de force. I found the performances pretty solid, though there are some odd moments. A couple of off lines and an unmotivated jump cut make me think the film was shot in a hurry and didn’t get adequate coverage sometimes. It mars an otherwise tightly acted and directed film.
I’ll admit some of the action sequence dialogue is a little mediocre, but I think that just goes with the juvenile nature of the action narrative. Action almost always leads to corny dialogue when it is given so much screen time. Many have claimed the CGI monster spoils the effect, but I find all effects creatures hokey and artificial so disbelief doesn’t even come into the picture. In the broader context of effects cinema history it is fine. To sum up: Wonderful, moody gothic tale with an inspiring level of formal skill to the photography, juvenile sci fi horror action narrative. The first I like, I can swallow the second.