The best films – did I say ten?

I did say ten, didn’t I? And exceeded the limit straight away. Ever since I’ve beaten myself up every time I thought of another one that should have gone on the list.

So (why do all answers to questions nowadays begin with the word ‘so’? We should be told) this is what is known as an esprit d’escalier – the stuff you think of as you go down the stairs which you wish you’d said a moment ago during that important meeting, date or (if you’re anything like me) job interview.

So –

How did I leave out The Mission – a catastrophic clash between imperial, political, religious and cultural imperatives in 18th Century South America? It has scenes of indescribable beauty, unalloyed joy, compassion – and brutal suppression. Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons act their socks off and the local tribespeople, especially the children, are natural stars. But the acting is capped by the great Ray McAnally as the Cardinal obliged by his duty of obedience to order the destruction of the Jesuit Mission. As the scene unfolds he is leaning against a wall, suffering. The story goes that the director suggested, in rehearsal, that it would be great if he could let a tear fall from just one eye. Without turning a hair, McAnally said, “OK, which eye?” and proceeded to do it. Something technical that virtuoso actors can do. It’s a wonderful scene, and when I first saw it I was clawing the seat and hammering my fists in impotent rage.

And what about Kind Hearts and Coronets – greatest of the Ealing comedies, with virtuoso acting by Alec Guinness, a laugh-out-loud witty script and a brilliantly ironic ending? A very English film, no doubt low-budget, shot in black and white and dripping with period charm. After seeing it many times I’m not sure whether I’d describe it as moral, immoral or amoral – whichever it is, you find yourself willing a murderer to succeed, however bizarre or obnoxious his victims. And he does. Or doesn’t. His victims get what’s coming to them, anyway.

Or The Court Jester – Danny Kaye’s finest hour, with spectacular songs and the immortal Pellet with the poison sequence – guaranteed to get me helpless  on what must be the twentieth viewing by now? Not sure, but it could be a parody of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (see earlier post). Though I’ve never been quite certain that Robin Hood isn’t a parody of this one. Sheer, silly, grin-from-ear-to-ear humour from beginning to end, a cast of hardy old troupers including Angela Lansbury, Basil Rathbone and Cecil Parker, perfect comic timing and – guess what – it ends happily.

And E.T. – I left out E.T., for goodness’ sake. Less of a kids’ film (though brilliantly Stephen Spielberg shot it largely at the eye level of a child) than one for adults who want to be kids (and who doesn’t?) having a fabulous adventure. How many times do you see a large room of grown ups stand up and cheer – as they do when the bikes take off and the music soars at the climax of that tremendous chase? And the story goes that, at the première, hard-bitten film critics had to be helped at the end. Who wouldn’t, after the wrenching final scene – the acute pain of loss, the beauty of innocent trust and the death of childhood all rolled into one? If (unlike me) you’ve got past the hospital scene, that is – another tear-jerker that just knows which are the right buttons to press.

That’s another four. Only four – that leaves me more wriggle room for the future. It’s compulsive, I know. I can’t help myself.

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