I mean, this list was bound to come up at some point, and is also bound to re-appear at a later date when I realise how silly I was at the time of writing this in years, or even months to come, so I figured why not just do it now? Discussing favourites is always the most enjoyable part of being a film fan, even more enjoyable than tearing a film apart in front of people who like it (I think I enjoy that a little too much…), and so, why not make it one of the first posts here. It’s twice as fun when nobody can interrupt to have a whinge and a moan about your choices, too. Anyway, rambling aside, let’s get started. I’ll avoid spoilers unless I mention otherwise, and I will also go from the bottom spot to the top, though, of course, ranking is pretty ridiculous and for the most part, the list could be in any order.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)
Starting off with a decision that is bound to leave at least ten percent of you clicking off and now dismissing anything I say ever again, Cosmopolis… is just one of the craziest films out there. Even I’ll admit, on first viewing I don’t think I even finished the film, finding the bizarre dialogue, the dodgy green-screen and the oddball performances more deterring than enjoyable. But then, some time later, after getting deeply into Cronenberg and his work, I returned to it, and at first I was genuinely ashamed to admit just how wrong I was about it on first viewing, but after a while, I did admit it. I soon watched it again and only fell deeper under its spell. It’s just such a bizarre film that I can’t help but admire Cronenberg’s confidence in delivering it, in fact, that sort of confidence may be one of my largest reasons for liking it, with Cronenberg clearly caring so little about what the audience thinks of his work at this point that he is really getting to the core of what he has been wanting to make films about for his entire career.
Interestingly, Cronenberg’s work seems to just get better as it goes along, with his student films being interesting failures, his early features (Shivers and Rabid) being a little flat, not going all out as Cronenberg would later on in his career, and then his 1980s work finally starting to show his potential, with him merging his disgust at almost anything even related to people with his fascination with science fiction and creating these bizarre, uncomfortable thrillers with social comments on his fear of technological advancements. Videodrome and Dead Ringers stand out in particular as two of his absolute best films about certain fears of Cronenberg’s, with him channelling this fear into making something that is scary, but also has this uncomfortable melancholy to it, particularly noticeable in Dead Ringers which also focuses on the relationship between the Mantle twins as this beautiful thing that is being crushed by each brother unintentionally. As he went into the 1990s, Cronenberg grew… much weirder in his approach, making three of his weirdest films in a row with Naked Lunch (maybe his weirdest, most ambitious film), Crash and eXistenZ. Each of these films had the same focus on a distinct fear of the future and what people are really capable of, often making his characters borderline animalistic, particularly in Crash, a film focuses on people sexually stimulated by car crashes, with this great mess of metal working as the foreground to a severely depressing tale of a fading marriage and sex life between the characters. Even the tagline for Crash shows Cronenberg’s deep fear of the future, saying ‘Love in the dying moments of the twentieth century’, which literally explains the century as a living being preparing to die. It’s as poetic as it is disturbing.
With the twenty first century, Cronenberg focused much more on the psychological side of his characters, opening his work this century with the very underrated Spider (2002), which is this strange character study of a film that focuses on a disturbed man reflecting on his past, maybe even receding into it, taking us through his psyche in a way that highlights these uncomfortable sexual feelings as well as this palpable sadness and this longing for a different life. I won’t go into spoilers, though, as few people have seen it and it really just has to be seen. After some crime films which has a focus on the inescapable past that we all have and redemption, Cronenberg entered the most experimental phase of his career, with A Dangerous Method, a film about a love triangle between a mental patient, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung that spirals out of control just as quickly as it started, followed by Cosmopolis, which remains by far his weirdest film, channeling all of his obsessions that he has explored before but in an entirely new light, with this hateful focus on privileged young people and, once again, a clearly fearful look into the future of humanity that just comes together to create this uncomfortable, frightening and even woozy post-modernist masterpiece that is leaps and bounds from the majority of his other work, not in quality, but in this newfound aggressive style that carries the film, and just some of the filthiest dialogue ever put to screen. Of course, after this, Cronenberg also made Maps to the Stars, which continued with the new fixation on being so angry that you can almost hear Cronenberg’s heavy breathing over each scene and picture him, red-faced and screaming. Though Maps to the Stars also features some of the weirdest scenes in any of Cronenberg’s body of work, it just doesn’t quite work beyond being this hateful look at modern Hollywood and fame, but it’s still a much better film than most.
Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)
Michael Mann has certainly had one of the most turbulent careers, even if he has mostly stuck to the action/crime genre throughout his career. With Blackhat, he takes on a similar fear of the future as Cronenberg often does, however, he looks at it with this ferocious anger on top of the fear. Blackout opens with a scene in which a Chinese nuclear facility is attacked by cyber terrorists, and almost instantly throws the audience into these stunning tracking shots that glides through the inside of the computer, following the code through the wires until it reaches the computer it is trying to infect, but what is really interesting about this is the way that this shot is done, especially considering that, for the most part, it is a CGI shot. The inside of the computer is made to look almost like a city, one that is completely empty and crowded by skyscrapers, somehow also communicating this deep fear of how the world is changing and what it means for individuals.
The fact that the film revolves around cyber-criminals also gives way to analysis in terms of identity and individuality, with the antagonists hiding behind screens and using screen names for the majority of the film. Even the fight sequences, aside from the ending (which I’ll get to in a moment), are completely faceless, with the majority of the people involved just being seen as nothing. When they’re shot, the audience doesn’t really feel anything from it, and that is what is so frightening about the film. Of course, by the end of the film, there has to be a final battle, and when it does happen, it takes place during a march, one so crowded that you have to actively try to keep an eye on the characters throughout the scene, once again, losing their individuality in this sea of bodies.
The way that death is handled in the film is also just so cold. Following Nickolath’s Desensitisation theory beautifully (desensiatisation is defined as “a treatment or process that diminishes emotional responses to a negative, averse or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it”, key words being repeated exposure in this case) in that when somebody does die, the characters barely find time to grieve other than Chen Lien, who is the latest to experience this kind of brutality. The audience may even feel the same way when they see characters die in the film, this cold immunity to it out of the way that it is dealt with, brushed aside for the sake of efficient in this world where individuals mean nothing anymore.
It’s just so fascinating that when Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, in his best performance) is found out as an individual, he is repeatedly attacked for the remainder of the film. Targeted simply because people know who he is and that he won’t simply give in to the world (I’d say the antagonists, however, Nick seems to actively fight against everyone he comes into contact with in the third act out of fear and rebellion). Blackout is most definitely a film that gets a mixed reception, maybe due to the fact that it acts so cold and says a lot of things in a way that is… very unusual, commenting by ignoring important parts of the film and by disconnecting the emotion of it to a certain extent, but hey, if it were too easy to understand and react to, would it really be a late Michael Mann film?
The Outsiders (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
One of the most personal choices on this list, this is one that I side with a whole lot simply due to the way that it presents this rough childhood with a beautiful nostalgia, because, really, it isn’t all bad, and films that portray lower class growing up as terrible without giving way to any of the good side of it just irritate me. The Outsiders just takes this rough group of friends and places them inside this world so nostalgic you can almost hear the expository narrator that was probably cut out. Opting to use music and set design to push the time setting instead, with a phenomenal soundtrack that never really lets up, the film just seems to understand, in the same way that it just seems to flow perfectly despite the fact that I still can’t say I truly understand why, outside of the editing, performances and soundtrack… and maybe the cinematography too. I mean, any cast with Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Waits(!) and Diane Lane is bound to be entertaining, but The Outsiders takes it to this whole other level, and Coppola manages to create this slightly ethereal backdrop to this crushing story in a way that allows the audience to just fall into it, under the spell of it, something that happens quite frequently with Coppola’s direction. His world building is really second to none. Apologies, but, there isn’t really any way to describe the hidden grace to the story, a majestic power that emulates from the performances, and the soundtrack, and the cutting. As he often has, Coppola has made a film that really defies any simple definition and simply works as this incredibly emotional injection, so, all I can say is that it is worth seeking out. Note that I saw a 130 minute cut, which I have heard some people prefer and some don’t.
The Moment of Truth (Francesco Rosi, 1965)
This may be the most unknown film on the list, one that focuses on a young man living in Spain desperate to become rich, a man willing to do anything in an attempt just to have money for the sake of having it, seeing it as an escape from his life before. Choosing to bullfight for money, Miguelin becomes something of a celebrity quite quickly, managing to entertain both with his daredevil stunting and his showmanship, however, slowly it becomes clear that Miguelin is falling apart, ruined due to his excessive greed, and yet, he is unable to stop himself, and keeps pushing himself harder and harder in a desperate attempt to remain popular and relevant. Despite this, Miguelin is clearly just miserable. He plods around, only ever seeming even slightly pleased with himself when he is surrounded by others and their praise. The ending is also one of the strongest moments in film history, but I won’t ruin it, don’t worry.
Also worth noting is the bizarre use of Cinemascope photography in the film. Whilst usually used on Hollywood musicals and comedies to give them a light feel, with colours that pop out of the screen, Rosi uses Cinemascope in this really unique way, mixing the surrealist look that CinemaScope carries with this incredibly harsh cinema verite realism. As much as I don’t agree with the fact that they did really kill some bulls for the film, it did happen, and has to be looked at for the power it contains within the film, as it is just brutal, adding even more harsh realism juxtaposing this really strange look created by the CinemaScope. I don’t know if you could really argue that it’s experimental, but it’s certainly trying something to great effect. Maybe I’m biased though, I have always had a deep love for the CinemaScope look, and it is used so well here. The bullfighting scenes themselves are some of the most impressive sequences ever, shot in these great wide shots that clearly show that Miguelin is really fighting the bull in the ring which adds this exhilaration that very, very few films have. It doesn’t surprise me that Francesco Rosi is one of Scorsese’s favourite directors, along with Elia Kazan, as Scorsese seems to have the same sort of admiration for these urban films that I do. It’s worth noting that Rosi’s most well known film, Salvatore Giuliano (1962), is one of Scorsese’s ten favourite films ever made.
One From The Heart (Francis Ford Coppola, 1982)
Coppola’s second appearance on this list, One From The Heart is one of the most enjoyable films ever made, despite the heavy flickers of melancholy that flash in your face throughout. Having only really caught onto it very recently, despite my love of musicals that I have carried for years now, I must say that at first I was slightly averse to the style, with the overly flashy colours and the insane set design, so clearly fake but… all of a sudden, I was endeared by it, and before I knew it, I was head over heels for the movie. The romance plot may be extremely simple, but plot is just about the last thing Coppola was focused on, evidently. Instead, he was too in love with the style, and the theme of love, and though some will say that it frequently gives way to plot convenience for the sake of being wholesome, I can’t help but feel that this is exactly what Coppola was trying to do.
Sure, it feels a little silly at first, but let it sink in. Everything in the film is so manufactured and clearly fake, and yet, there is this genuinely palpable emotion in the centre of it, held together by these beautiful sets, the performances and the simplistic story. Something about it just… clicks together, beautifully. And there is something to be said about a film as wholesome as this one, too. Despite the fact that it does certainly have some sadder moments, there is more than enough happiness within the film to counterbalance it, and it is just amazing to see Coppola try something like this after his ‘70s work, which was all very serious. It feels like there is a huge weight off of his shoulders (this feeling continues to show itself for… maybe the rest of his career, with a few exceptions, like the third Godfather film, some of Tetro and maybe his segment of New York Stories, which I still consider his absolute worst work… it’s kind of unbearable), and that feeling just bursts through for the entire runtime here (take note that this was the first film he made after The Godfather parts I and II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, almost definitely his most serious works and undeniably his most acclaimed). As much as I adore ‘80s Coppola, his work in the 21st century is maybe even more bizarre and fun, from the wild Youth Without Youth to the even weirder Twixt, however it remains to me that his ‘80s work is certainly his finest, from the dizzying cinematic heights of The Outsiders and One From The Heart to the joyous Peggy Sue Got Married (which continues to grow on me, especially having recently seen the soft remake 17 Again, which has a strikingly similar plot), the beautiful and poignant Rumble Fish and… his 3D film starring Michael Jackson that was shown in Disney parks. Sorry, I had to bring that up, despite the fact that I haven’t even seen it. It’s just too relevant.
So, this concludes the first part of this list. Expect the next five films to be up on here within a week or two. To drop a couple of hints, there is another Mann film, there is a Renoir film and there is even some Antonioni, as well as the one and only short film to make the cut.