White with excitement waiting to see the new Bond movie (always an event – people dress up and there’s a strong element of ceremonial), I had a stab at what might be my top ten films. Not the best ten films in the world – who could possibly rule on that? Not even the ten best in my opinion – I don’t have a reliable test to use. Just my favourites. The ones which, as soon as they’re finished, I would happily watch all over again.
I’m already looking forward to hearing yours. Here goes, though, as they say in the ‘reality’ shows, in no particular order:
Zorba the Greek
An exuberant, black and white slice of life from a traditional Greek island, Alan Bates looking more and more confused as the larger-than-life Zorba (Anthony Quinn at his extravagant best) inducts him into local ways and the familiar ‘Let’s dance’ philosophy. Look for the grasping crones hovering round the door of the village Madam as she lies, heirless, on her deathbed, desperate to grab as much as they can before ‘the state’ moves in and impounds the spoils they believe are theirs by right. The magnificent scene where the local monks bless Zorba’s doomed system for getting logs down the mountainside. Theodorakis’ music including, of course, that dance.
I’ve given up thinking that I know every twist in this endlessly inventive confection. Every time I see it there are more devious turns, double crossing and dirty tricks. No one in this film is what they seem, no scene is what you think it is, no outcome is predictable. As I write, the makers are probably adding new turns to delight future generations. The only constants are the period detail, the crisp and clever dialogue, the soundtrack of delicious Scott Joplin piano rags, and the master acting of the Paul Newman/Robert Redford double act, first seen just before in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – which is a rattling good story too and might have made my list, but didn’t quite. The Sting is really only a simple story of just revenge in the American gangster community – amoral but you can’t but be delighted by the outcome. Best scene? The poker game on the train, Paul Newman cheating shamelessly as if no tomorrow. I’ve never worked out how he does it, but who cares?
Liza Minnelli’s finest hour. Could be the finest of all screen musicals, every song moving the action on as you watch, with mounting horror, the evil of Nazism taking root among the really ordinary people who were duped by it. Minnelli’s Sally Bowles is a true original – a larger than life character, confident only when performing on stage (and what performances) but underneath broken and fragile. Joel Grey as the nightclub MC is studiedly outrageous, moving the action on with fantastic energy and outrageous grace. “Life is a cabaret, old son: Come to the cabaret.”
The Adventures of Robin Hood
It’s a romp: the original movie from Hollywood in its Golden Age: Errol Flynn at his most buccaneering, Olivia de Havilland at her most virginal, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains at their dastardly worst, Erich Wolfgang Korngold turning out a musical score to quicken the spirits and summon up the blood. All the well-known scenes are there – Little John, Friar Tuck, etc – it’s more like a traditional panto than anything else. The climactic up-and-down-stairs sword fight, much of it done in silhouette, is a classic – and was there ever a more villainous villain’s name than (note the French pronunciation) ‘Sir Guy de Gisborne’?
The Life of Brian
Don’t bother with the po-faced outrage. This funniest of all films is much cleverer than that. Let’s get it over with: this is NOT a satire on religion. It’s a satire on mindless fundamentalism, which it sends up mercilessly with a concentrated wit that spares nothing and no one. The crippled beggar who is horrified to receive divine healing because at a stroke it’s deprived him of his livelihood. The bargaining scene where Brian, in a massive hurry, won’t play by the rules and insists on paying the first price quoted, to the horror of the market trader. John Cleese as the Pharisee, trying to supervise the stoning of a man for blasphemy, who incompetently says the dread word Jehovah and is himself stoned. The rival Palestine liberation groups, splintered into countless fragments by incomprehensible disputes. The hapless graffito writer forced to rewrite his anti-Roman slogan until he gets the Latin grammar right: you can tell the film was put together by a bunch of public schoolboys. Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate, pitifully struggling with an embarrassing speech impediment. Take your pick, though. Every scene is a gem.
Maybe the Marx Brothers’ finest. It’s short and crisp, unencumbered by unnecessary songs and any of Harpo’s (admittedly fine) harp solos, and an absolute riot of comic business capped by the fabulous mirror scene – probably the funniest piece of mime ever, and in stereo! The script is honed down to the very best lines so, like Hamlet, it’s like a whole load of quotes strung together. Best joke? Well, it must be Groucho’s irresistible “We’re fighting for this lady’s honour. Which is probably more than she ever did.”
The Dirty Dozen
Anthony Quinn again, marshalling a dozen ne’er-do-well criminals to undertake a daredevil, probably suicidal mission in World War 2. Just a ripping yarn, brilliantly told. The only significant violence can’t be gratuitous because it’s against blackhearted villain Nazis who jolly well deserve it. The dozen are – well, let’s say, unlikely to get a First in Classics, so have to be taught their moves by numbers, repeated over and over until even they can’t get them wrong. And then some of them do. “What are the rules, boss?” one of them asks the mighty Quinn. And he replies with a line every team I ever worked with got sick of hearing me say: “There’s only one rule: DON’T DIE”.
Stand By Me
You want a good cry? The first time I saw the last scene of this little tale, about a bunch of 12 year old boys in small town America who have a small adventure, I ended up face down on the sofa, hammering my fists and crying like a baby. The story itself isn’t much – it’s just a vehicle: the film is about growing up, and having friends, and knocking each other over, and picking each other up, dreams, hopes, bravado, insecurity, curiosity, loyalty, nascent talent and … and … the rest. It’s all underpinned by the popular songs of the time – who remembers My Boy Lollipop, Yackety Yack and others? It’s the more poignant because a leading part is played by the luminously talented, doomed River Phoenix – who did not survive the film by many years. He’s last seen in the penultimate scene. In the final scene his friend, now grown up and a professional writer, looks out of the window at his own son, playing with a friend on the lawn. The last thing you see is the line he has just written: ‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?’ And the song steals in: ‘When the night … is come …’, and the strings well up – Ben E King’s Stand By Me, which must be one of the three greatest singles ever recorded. And there’s me on the sofa …
The Gospel According to St Matthew
Oh help. Not really sure I’d watch this one twice in a row. It’s strong meat – intense, passionate, compulsive, wrenching – Pier Paolo Pasolini’s attempt at a secular account of the story, which turns into a work of deep spirituality. Black and white, spare, stripped of any gloss, using unknown actors apparently picked out of the fields, and with no script beyond the actual words of the gospel, it simply picks you up, whirls you round, wrings you out and leaves you to get on with it. The soundtrack makes the best use of off-the-peg chunks of ‘classical’ music I ever expect to hear in a film: Bach’s St Matthew Passion, his Concerto for Violin and Oboe, bits of the Congolese Missa Luba. And, supremely, for the crucifixion: Mozart’s fabulous Masonic Funeral Music. In that devastating scene, essentially wordless, Pasolini cast his own mother as the Virgin Mary – Freudian or what? Is it a secular film? No – the story is one which works on multiple levels. You don’t have to be a believer. You don’t have to be an unbeliever. Whatever the director originally intended, it’s as near as it comes to a spiritual experience. Take a deep breath and try it.
“Are you a girl?” I was asked by a less-than-sensitive (female) colleague when I hymned the praises of this glorious shot of feelgood hokum which just makes me grin all the way through, pausing only to laugh out loud at the antics of a loosely-linked bunch of people careering around London and elsewhere in the run up to what looks, by the end, like being an eventful and probably chaotic Christmas. None of the characters, none of the scenes, none of the dialogue, is more than half believable, most not believable at all – but hey, the emotions they reveal are absolutely on the money, you can’t really dislike any of the characters and by the end you are desperate for everything to turn out well for all of them. Keira Knightley as a delicious young bride, Hugh Grant in a passable Tony Blair impersonation, Kris Marshall as a sublimely optimistic no-hoper for whom everything (quite rightly) turns out good, hosts of others and, above all, Bill Nighy overacting everyone off the set as a drug-sozzled, over-the-hill rock star who unexpectedly achieves the Christmas Number One. He has what might be the best line when, to the delight of the TV presenters whom he addresses as ‘Ant-or-Dec’ (doesn’t everyone?), he addresses the child audience: “Don’t buy drugs” – and then can’t resist adding, “Become a rock star. They give you loads.”
This went straight into my top five, let alone top ten, as soon as I saw it on release last year. It looked promising and the reviews were good (as if that mattered) but to be honest I didn’t expect it to be much more than a mildly amusing kids’ film, probably twee, maybe on the wrong side of mawkish. But it’s brilliantly done from beginning to end – a straightforward telling of an affecting story, gorgeous to look at, rich in cross-references to other films (Nicole Kidman in a Mission Impossible send up – geddit?) and gloriously acted all round. It was the adults in the audience who were having a ball. And why not, when it’s full not just of mild chuckles but throw-your-head-back-and-rock-with-laughter moments? Sample? Hugh Bonneville, faced with a challenge to venture onto a perilous rooftop and declaring to camera, absolutely straight-faced, “Someone has to be a hero. That person is me.”
Shakespeare in Love
It started as a film and went on to be a stage play. Personally I think it works even better on stage – simply because it’s Tom Stoppard’s love song to the theatre. But as a display of verbal pyrotechnics it takes a lot of beating: try the ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ crack for starters. Not so much Shakespeare in Love as In Love with Shakespeare, and there’s plenty for devotees to enjoy. But anyone can enjoy it, whether or not you get all the allusions (I don’t, but I love all the ones I’ve spotted so far). Capping it all is the glorious Dame Judi Dench, getting the Best Supporting Actress award which was Oscar’s penance for not giving her the Best Actress she obviously deserved the previous year for Mrs Brown.
Oh, is that twelve? Well, there I go again. You see how difficult it is? I made that list without even stopping for breath. Goodness knows what agonies I’d have gone through if I’d stopped to think about it.